The Rachel Carson Reserve

Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.

This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.

Visiting_Rachel_Carson_9Jul09

Map courtesy of NC Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve as part of a brochure printed with grant funds provided by NOAA.

The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.

Beaufort

A view of Beaufort through the cordgrass on the reserve, replete with periwinkle, a small marine gastropod (snail) that grazes on algae and detritus on the surface of plants and on the ground. They are food for many species of crabs and terrapins.

The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.

Periwinkle

Closer shot of periwinkle. I am fascinated by the multiple trophic levels that exist just among the varying heights of the cord grass. Estuarine ecosystems are quite rich.

Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.

Devils Walking Stick

Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), a native shrub tree that produces berries that can be consumed by many birds and mammals but are toxic to humans.

The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.

Indian Blanket

Beautiful Indian Blankets (Gaillardia pulchella) were all over the reserve.

I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.

Horses

The feral horse herd, easily 500 yards or more away during the time of my hike. The horses travel to the parts of the reserve not usually accessed by humans during the hours that humans are likely to visit…because horses are smart like that.

Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.

The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.

Peas

Mr. Wunderly pointing out Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum), which the horses will eat in addition to the cord grass.

While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.

Entering the World of Whales: the Exquisite Photography of Bryant Austin

by Shauna Potocky

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin has seen whales in a way most people will never experience—he has floated for hours in their realm simply waiting for them, waiting for a connection and an opportunity. Today that patience and care represents the most exquisite collection of life sized and detailed whale photographs in the world.

Austin has traveled to remarkable locations in order to wait—places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the South Pacific. When his waiting results in a connection, both whales and the world are rewarded. He is then able to capture and create composite photographs resulting in 1:1 scale portraits of whales—life-sized. Yes, whale sized photographs.

Austin’s work has brought the essence of whales to humanity in a way that is profound. This work has resulted in worldwide recognition, from gallery exhibitions to whaling conventions.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Austin and ask about his inspiration, challenges and insight.

Shauna Potocky: Your work is recognized around the world and is so incredibly unique. What inspired you to do this work?

Bryant Austin: I’ve always been unsatisfied by the way whales have been photographed underwater. In the beginning I thought that there were no other options for photographing them underwater in ways that would make them more compelling.

By a completely random event in 2004 with a humpback whale mother and calf, who moved right up to me while I was on snorkel—they were less than six feet away at times and I could see for the first time, their true colors and all of the fine texture and detail that makes them real. This is what started the process for me to think about how I could photographically capture those moments and recreate the emotional sensations I experienced.

SP: Your incredible body of work has led to you to participate in conferences or other opportunities that address issues facing whales and marine mammals. What meetings or events have you participated in? What role did your work contribute to these meetings? What was the outcome or your thoughts on the proceedings?

BA: In 2008 I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. The exhibit itself didn’t change any of the outcomes. However, there were indicators of its power to move viewers. Outside of the main meeting room, where everyone breaks for coffee, were massive tables filled with brochures and pamphlets either for or against whaling. As my exhibit was in the main lobby, we asked the IWC Secretariat if we could display my first life size portrait of a humpback whale calf in this area and with no text of any kind. The Secretariat said “no,” stating that it would be too provocative and contentious to do so. The idea of a life sized portrait of a baby whale being contentious made me realize that my photographs may indeed have the power to inspire change in the coming years.

SP: Art can be a powerful tool for education and engagement. Have you found that your work has inspired others to care for the ocean, for whales or other marine mammals?

BA: When my work was first exhibited in Norway, I realized it had the potential to speak to a wider audience, including those living in countries that commercially hunt whales. I remember a press conference where former whalers were invited to see my work. At times they were moved to silence and I was captivated by their expressions as they studied my prints, seeing a whale in a way they’ve never known.

SP: What challenges did you face along the way to following your path working with whales and sharing your work as an artist?

BA: The biggest challenge is funding. My work had no precedent for a reason; it is very expensive and risky. It can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per day to work alone at sea with these creatures. I float alone in the ocean among them and patiently wait for them to approach me on their terms. I may go three months in the field and only have one or two encounters that are meaningful to my work. Other times, I may be in the field for five weeks and return home with nothing. This is the risk I must face in order to create something very special that has never existed before.

Even after a successful field season, the challenges continue as I must raise enough money to frame and mount my largest works which can cost as much as 85,000 dollars. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate exactly why this has never been done before. In a lot of ways this work shouldn’t exist, but it does so, against all the odds.

Bryant Austin's book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

SP: You recently published the book, Beautiful Whale. Can you share with us a highlight for yourself in completing this book?

BA: One of the highlights was returning to the Kingdom of Tonga in 2011. Five years had passed since my last trip there and it was cathartic to be back. I was there for only five weeks and was attempting to compose a few more portraits for the book. I had many great and memorable encounters, and it was great to apply all that I’ve learned over the years with the whales who originally inspired my work.

SP: Your art has been featured in some remarkable locations. Do you have a favorite exhibit? And, do you have any upcoming exhibits scheduled?

BA: The one exhibition that always stands out in my mind is Beautiful Whale at the Tamada Museum in Tokyo, 2010. My largest photographs were printed and mounted for the first time and debuted at this museum. It was only the second time I had ever seen these prints full size and it was a heartfelt experience to see the responses from the overwhelming number of visitors that attended.

My most recent show at the USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum came down this year. I currently have no plans for another major solo show in the near future; however, several of my prints will be featured in a group show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting in October, 2015.

SP: What do you feel is the most critical issue facing whales today? What can people do to help protect marine life?

BA: There are many issues threatening the survival of whales today and few that we can change as individuals. However, the one thing we can do as individuals is to simply stop eating seafood. It is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die entangled in commercial fishing gear each year for our love of seafood.

More whales are dying every year entangled in commercial fishing gear than at the very height of commercial whaling. I would encourage your readers to make a commitment to no longer eat anything from the ocean.

Reflecting on Austin’s comments regarding entanglements, important quantitative information is coming to light. In a study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 by by Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker and Simon Northridge, the paper focused on determining global rates of bycatch and subsequently reported “an annual estimate of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds.” Today efforts are increasing to address this issue.

Bryant Austin's whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s work captivates. He has connected people to one of the terrestrial world’s greatest mysteries—the ocean and the world of whales. Through his work, book and exhibitions, these monumental beings receive the awe and respect they deserve. Yet, their journeys and livelihood are not without peril. Today, the world is more equipped to protect marine mammals than any other time in history. If we cannot directly stop whaling or the impacts to marine mammals, such as entanglements, we can directly address the marketplace that drives the harvest or mechanism of their decline. When we make choices the marketplace listens and that, scaled up, results in change.

Sustaining the Ocean that Sustains You

Sunrise and sunset are always inspiration times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sunrise and sunset are always inspirational times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Regardless of where you live, land locked or ocean side, each day you touch, use and take in water that is part of a large planetary cycle. This cycle connects you to the weather, watersheds on land and ultimately the oceans.

As the world took time to celebrate World Oceans Day on Monday, June 8 and a United States Presidential Proclamation declared the month of June to be National Oceans Month, we have the opportunity to use these events as a timely reminder that the ocean affects each of us, where we live and the resources we all depend on. It is the perfect time to explore the ocean’s impressive influence and employ some easy, yet powerful, choices that ultimately invest in the ocean’s long-term health and functioning.

We rely on the ocean and the services of its water more than one might expect. For example, it is connected to fresh water resources, food supplies and weather, in ways which may not be evident.

The Earth’s oceans account for about 70 per cent of the planet’s overall surface. Of the water on our planet, only about 2-2.5 per cent is considered fresh water, with less than about 1 per cent  available for us to actually consume. Remarkably, our bodies are also made of a significant amount of water, about 60-70 per cent, so our dependence on fresh water is undeniable—and ultimately this comes to us from the ocean.

The ocean serves as the major weather and climate regulator of the planet. Its currents and temperatures affect the trade winds, as well as the cycles of El Nino (characterized by warm, wet winters on the North American continent) and La Nina (characterized by cold, dry winters on the North American continent). The cycling of temperatures and currents in the ocean play a critical role in the weather patterns experienced in locales around the world.

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California's water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California’s water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

Weather plays a critical role in the supply of fresh water on the landscape during a season, translating into snow pack, rainfall and fresh water availability. Water availability directly affects human usage: agriculture, water storage, hydroelectricity generation and much more. In addition, water availability affects ecosystem health, with an overabundance leading to flooding or saturation issues and a deficit leading to drought and scarcity.

The ocean also has a huge influence on where people live and on food sources. Much of the human population lives along coastlines and the ocean provides one of the most important protein sources worldwide.

Even in landlocked areas, people are still intimately connected to the ocean via the weather and watershed functioning, which then affects food supplies such as agriculture. Most rivers flow to lakes or tributaries that eventually make their way to the oceans; thus, activities upstream have a direct effect on aquatic ecosystems. If a river makes it all the way to the ocean, it will affect the ocean ecosystem itself. Thus, people living inland also have a direct effect on water quality and ocean health.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

It is true that the ocean is facing significant pressures and our dependence on them for regulating weather, climate and supplying food cannot be undervalued. The media is constantly relating stories of oil spills, crashing fish populations, pollution issues and much more. So with such dire stories, what is working? Where is the inspiration to make things better or sustain healthy systems?

Right here. These are some great examples of what is working and choices you can make to create a cascade of positive change:

Seafood Watch: Knowing that the number one source of protein on the planet comes from the ocean should inspire people to make good choices to maintain the world’s fish stocks. Understanding sustainable fishing methods and which fish are good choices in the market place seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to research the natural history of fish and where it comes from to make a great choice for your next seafood dinner—the work has been done for you and that makes choosing sustainable seafood easy.

The Seafood Watch program has complied the latest information to make your choices easy as well as effective. Simply go to the website, get the app or download a card for your wallet or refrigerator. It takes the guesswork and research out of making an informed decision for the ocean. There are cards specific to various locations and sushi information as well. You couldn’t be more set up for success for your next seafood dinner date.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s): Essentially these areas protect critical habitat in the ocean, giving them special protections, similar to a national park or wilderness area on land. These protections allow biological hotspots to either recover from impacts or be protected from potential pressures. Long-term monitoring of MPA’s has shown that, when these areas are protected, they provide benefits that reach beyond their boundaries, essentially overflowing into surrounding areas. Currently about 1 per cent of the ocean is protected, so there is significant room for growth. Consider supporting MPA’s via your local National Marine Sanctuary or talking with representatives in your area to implement a new MPA and create the space for long-term ecological benefits.

Oiled Wildlife Care Network: The reality of today’s global economy is that oil is not going away any time soon. With economic pressure to keep up the supply and demand of oil, the threat of oil spills will continue to haunt the world’s coastlines. Spills can be truly disastrous. Today, there are networks of wildlife experts who strive to directly and immediately address the needs of wildlife during an oil spill—and you can become a volunteer and learn first-hand, from them, how to make a difference. Working an oil spill is stressful and emotional work, but it is also powerful and rewarding. Washing birds or marine mammals can directly impact their ability to survive such an event. It will also make you look at oil in a completely different way, a change in perspective could ultimately benefit the whole planet.

Banning plastic bags: Many communities have come to grips with the issues surrounding the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately the wide-spread use of plastic bags and their convenience has led to their wide-spread distribution in the environment as trash. Often plastic bags end up in watersheds then find their way into the ocean, and once there, find their way into the mouths of birds, turtles and whales. Luckily, many communities have taken steps to ban plastic bags and educate consumers about their impacts as well as sustainable alternatives. Foregoing the use of plastic bags will help make major strides in protection of watersheds, oceans and the wildlife associated with these ecosystems.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline are live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline or live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

As the world celebrates World Oceans Day and the United States acknowledges National Oceans Month, let’s do something more–let’s really value the ocean for the significant role it plays on the planet and its amazing effect on each of us. Then consider what exactly you will do to restore and protect our ocean resources, from protecting fish stocks, eliminating plastic pollution or reducing oil consumption.  What will you do to sustain the ocean that sustains you?

Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition, Patrick Webster

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

by Shauna Potocky

One cannot doubt the power of film, social media and the internet to connect people to stories, issues and challenges—whether on a local or global level. These same venues for communication also hold the power to share important positive stories, to educate, inform, empower and create space for important self-reflection.

One example of powerful storytelling emerged recently through The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition. The competition was hosted in collaboration with the American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and gave participants a venue to connect audiences to environmental issues through the power of humor and storytelling. What emerged was a highly engaged audience who rampantly shared the videos, providing a wide reach for the issues and giving emerging voices a platform for sharing and educating in a truly unique and engaging way.

The People’s Choice and Grand Prize Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Competition is the brilliant and inspiring Patrick Webster, a Program Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who specializes in educating the visiting public about marine science and ocean conservation issues. Patrick graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and was employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory where he credits making the connection between “dry, academic science and translating it into words and concepts people can relate to and care about.”

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Patrick and congratulate him on his recent award winning film. It also presented the perfect opportunity to ask him about his emerging voice in the area of film and the environment, as well as his thoughts on engaging audiences and making tough issues accessible to people. Nothing short of thoughtful—one of the things that I was most struck by, was the assurance that young voices are emerging to help carry and create connections that can inspire change—and that they are doing it in new and fresh ways—ways that work.

Shauna Potocky: It is clear that you have a robust grasp of environmental issues, especially facing the ocean. What is your background in education or environmental work?

Patrick Webster: I’ve been working in the world of informal science education for about eight years now. I studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz, and I was thankfully employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab for my whole college career. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and improv comedy—my “arts” requirement at UCSC was fulfilled with a stand-up class—and I am currently employed with this extremely niche set of marine-science-comedy-performance skills as a programs specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I think I defaulted into conservation and environmental work from studying marine ecology and living in the Monterey Bay area—the culture here is very ocean-minded. When you’re learning about how organisms affect and are affected by their environment, just by doing whatever it is they do to survive, and when you apply that ecological thinking to people, it changes how you think about your place in the world. When you see what we’re capable of doing—both bad and good—to our local ocean, you learn quickly that if you’re not careful with what you’re doing now, you could blow it for [everyone else in] the community, human or otherwise. I like to talk to people about conservation issues, because they really boil down to our priorities and choices: we’re lucky as humans that we can pick the role we want to play in the environment—and we know now that you can make a better living whale watching in the Monterey Bay than you could whaling!

S.P.: Many of your films include underwater scenes. How did you get into scientific diving?

P.W.: I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old, ever since I saw the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But growing up landlocked in the French Alps and the suburbs of Stockholm, diving wasn’t ever on the radar as something that anyone does until the college years. It was when I started taking upper-division classes in marine science, that I realized all the people I looked up to were scientific divers, and all the best stories told by the “elders”-involved dive trips and associated shenanigans. That’s when I knew I had to be a science diver, too. It also helps as motivation that 99% of the real estate on planet Earth for life to live is in the ocean—might as well get out there if you can!

S.P.: How did you find your voice in video and film production?

P.W.: The first time I realized I might be on to something in film was the reception to my submission to the “Youth In Yosemite” film contest. It was a very personal story about my connection to Yosemite through my late grandpa and my rock climbing hobby. I liked how it came out, but the response was very humbling. A lot of people said they connected with the story personally, that they cried and were reminded of their own family history of visiting the park. A long-time Yosemite resident told me that I was the first “outsider” he’d met who “got it”, and he thanked me. That gave me the confidence to enter more contests, and when I won the BLUE Ocean Film Festival’s YouTube contest that same year—with comedy instead of the dramatic Yosemite piece—that’s when I knew that “Hey, maybe people want to hear what I have to say.”

S.P.: What gives you hope or inspires you, when you consider the environmental issues that the world or the ocean face currently–such as what you highlighted in your film? They seem like huge challenges, how do you see us facing them?

P.W.: There are so many environmental success stories out there that we simply don’t notice for the same reason we don’t notice things getting bad in the first place: shifting baselines. Every time I see an otter in the kelp right outside, that is an incredible sight, and every time I see an otter I should be saying, “HEY EVERYONE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THERE’S AN OTTER RIGHT THERE!” I mean, they literally recovered from being classified as extinct! We are so used to seeing otters that we forget it is like seeing a kelp grizzly. Same thing with peregrine falcons, pelicans, all the whales in the Monterey Bay—those were all on the brink of disappearing forever. Now they [sea otters] are back and doing good. But we don’t notice them because they’re normal again, which is great as long as we don’t forget where we came from.

All it took for those animals to recover was for us humans to simply stop doing stuff we didn’t need to be doing. That is what is hopeful to me about “conservation issues”: they all boil down to a matter of choices and priorities. All it takes is for enough people to say “Hey, why don’t we just stop doing that?” and things start recovering right away. DDT is killing birds? Let’s stop doing that. Catching too many fish is bad? Let’s stop doing that. The climate is wrecked by burning fossil fuels? Let’s try to stop doing that. It has worked for us before to just stop doing bad things for things to get better. It is a matter of willpower.

For a lot of problems, that willpower is blocked by a lot of moneyed interests. And that’s hopeful too, because it means that if you can figure out how to make conservation more profitable than exploitation, you win. If the worst of humanity’s traits is greed, then flipping that for the planet will save us all and then some. It’s totally doable. I think that people are realizing the economic value of keeping ecosystems healthy, and I see that reality every day. Looking outside my window, I can see a bay that swapped whalers for whale watchers, flensing beaches for seal sanctuaries, a cannery for an Aquarium.

S.P.: If you could encourage others to make a difference–what advice would you give? How can people find their own voice, like you did through film? 

P.W.: Find out what you’re good at, and then keep doing that. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also very accessible. We all have our passions and our skills, and finding where they overlap is key. I’m passionate about marine science, but I’m not that dedicated a marine scientist. Had I gone the bachelors-masters-PhD-in-a-row route, I would have been ignoring the fact that I’m a far better communicator and I am an investigator. Talking in public about science has always been easy for me; writing scientific papers has always been a struggle. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it on things that are merely tangential to your actual niche. Each species out there does at least one thing better than everybody else, and people are no different.

Then, you have to listen to the people in your life, the strangers and the loved ones, and especially to the people who don’t owe you a thing. If they’re giving you feedback, it’s honest. If they tell you you’re on to something, make a note of that, because that might be where your voice is hiding in plain sight. Self-reflection is key: what is it that I do that comes easy and that people resonate with? If you find that nugget, that’s your gold vein, and you work it for all its worth.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster’s current projects can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/underwaterpat and by following him on Instagram @underwaterpat. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming launch of www.upwellingmedia.com.

 

A Conservation Success Story: Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

By Neva Knott

I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtlesthis trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next day, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body-boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.

The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.

I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.

The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.

Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”

Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.

To Watch the World Begin

By Neva Knott

To watch the sun rise over Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano, is to watch the world begin. Simultaneously, darkness lifts across the island and silhouettes become palms, hibiscus and plumeria. The birdsong begins and the ocean’s surface turns from a black void to rippled water. By the time the sun is above the volcano, Maui is alive.

Each morning on my recent trip, I arose in the pre-dawn darkness to walk. It’s the best way to get a sense of the place. The first morning, I found a shore bird nesting sanctuary just near the Kihei boat ramp. According to Andrew Engilis, Jr. and Maura Naughton, authors of the U.S. Pacific Island Regional Shorebird Conservation Plan, “The USPI [United States Pacific Islands] are home to one endemic shorebird,the endangered Hawaiian Stilt, and are important wintering areas for three species of Holarctic- Nearctic breeders: the Bristle-thighed Curlew, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Wandering Tattler. The majority of these species’ populations overwinter in the Pacific Islands, and these islands are critical to the maintenance of these birds.”

As Engilis and Naughton mention, the Hawaiian Stilt is an endemic species. Endemic species are those only found in the region they inhabit, and no where else in the world. Island biogeography and islands as ecosystems are interesting in that they are closed systems, microcosms of larger landmasses; endemic species add a layer to what scientists can know about a particular ecosystem and it’s health.

I love awakening to a new day on Maui. It feels pure. It feels like all life is interconnected. I feel alive there, and part of the web of life created by the sunrise and birdsong. I feel privy to the ancient truths embodied by the mountains.

Later that first day, I snorkeled at Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, a bay created by Haleakala’s lava flow. I watched species of fish feed and swim, and I knew that they were as important to the day as any other species, just as important as any one of us. Because fish do what they do, humans exist. In the ocean that day, I witnessed the mystery of life.

Islands can teach humans much about keeping the environment healthy. Just as each island species adds value and continuity to the web of life, it is easy to see on an island how each act of depletion causes irreparable harm. On an island, each piece of trash matters–will it blow into the ocean? Will it make it into a land fill? Where will it go when the land fill is full?

When I exited the ocean after my snorkel, the island was doubly alive–alive with the natural web of life and alive with consumeristic tourists, all of whom were excited about the fish and coral and the blue of the water; none of whom seemed concerned about their part in the web.

“Ocean Soul.” Brian Skerry at National Geographic Live

By Neva Knott

I’ve always lived near water. The home I was born into sat on the shore of a lake in a town surrounded by the Puget Sound. As my world expanded, I learned rivers and the ocean’s shore. When I was six, my father moved my family to Saipan, a small island in the South Pacific. Small, as in 14 miles long and five miles wide. It was there I fell in love with the ocean. I learned to swim and snorkel there, was stung by many man-o-war jelly fish. My father was an ecologist, so it wasn’t enough to witness the fish in the coral habitat; I learned their ways.

The ever-morphing boundary of earth and sea, that line that changes each day, minutely, as the water crashes on the sand and ebbs outward is fascinating. Power and grace.

As an adult, I lived on Maui for a year, another Pacific island, larger, but still small enough that I saw the ocean from every vantage point. I’d often look out across the water and marvel that it was the same body of water that touched my home shores in Washington and Oregon. The Pacific, it seems, connects all the places of my life.

The pervasive connectedness of the oceans underpinned the tone of photographer Brian Skerry‘s recent talk, “Ocean Soul,” given here in Olympia as part of the National Geographic Live series. Skerry has spent over 10,000 hours under water, photographing wildlife and habitat there. His images are saturated in the colors of the sea–deep blues and greens, brilliant oranges and yellows, shadows and darkness in the depths. Much of his work illustrates and promotes the vast beauty of the world beyond that magic shoreline. Skerry has photographed is unique and remote locations. In his book, Ocean Soul, he tells the stories of Leatherback Turtles on Matura Beach in Trinidad; Right Whales in Canada’s Bay of Fundy; Harp Seals in the Arctic Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In his journey to find these stories, Skerry explained in his talk, he began to notice environmental problems under water.

The images for his talk in the speaker series included photographs of seal hunting, the over-fishing of blue fin tuna, the by-catch of trawling for shrimp, and the dangers to sharks of entanglement in disposed fishing nets. He also gave the example of critical mangrove habitat in the everglades being destroyed to make a golf course. Skerry explained that his intent is to use his [beautiful] photography to raise awareness of the interconnectedness of the ocean’s ecosystems and the interdependency between species in these habitats. During his talk he admonished that we can no longer look at species and habitats a separate. The aim of his photography of environmental problems is to make this point.

As I listened to Skerry, his beautiful images on the large screen in front of me–and yes, even the images of the problems are beautiful–I once again saw that the environmental problems stem from human over-consumption…or just plain wrong thinking, like the idea of filling in a mangrove estuary to make a golf course.

Skerry’s images and talk took the audience’s attention well beyond the charismatic species approach of garnering awareness. He is a man who knows the world’s oceans intimately. He promotes the beauty and the need for consideration of these huge bodies of water that connect our worlds.

Featured image by Bryan Skerry, courtesy of The Smithsonian.

Mitigation of Ocean Acidification

By Neva Knott

I teach at a small college in Washington, Centralia College. Even though we only have 2,600 students, the college has a strong STEM focus. As an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, the college hosts speakers for the Rising Tide Seminar Series. The speaker for the January 2015 seminar was Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographer and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. He opened his presentation at Centralia College with the message that climate change is undeniable and serious, but it’s not too late.

Dr. Sabine gave the following five take-home points:

1. The profound impact of humans on the earth’s climate is “unmistakable at this point”

2. Carbon dioxide released into the climate has fundamentally changed the chemistry of oceans

3. The current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will impact climate for thousands, if not 10’s of thousands, of years

4. Even though the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been higher in the past, the rate of increase is 10-100 times faster than ever before in the geological past; this rapid rate of increase has a real, negative impact on adaptation–the ability of species, including humans, to change enough to exist in the changed biotic system

5. That there is a way out

Dr. Sabine’s presentation was largely based on the International Panel of Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013), on which he consulted. The latest findings are that the evidence substantiates a better than 95 percent likelihood of human influence as the driver of climate change. In referencing the work of IPCC, Sabine explained that there are “multiple lines of evidence” to support the unequivocal warming of the earth’s climate system, evidence that he suggested climate deniers can no longer avoid. These lines of evidence are: increasing air temperature; increasing atmospheric water vapor; increasing temperature over oceans; increasing sea temperature; increasing sea level; increasing ocean heat; decreasing sea ice.

The statistics behind these factors are staggering and somewhat unfathomable. Dr. Sabine explained that, as the climate has warmed in the last 40 years, 275 zeda jewels of additional solar energy have accumulated in the earth’s system. To illustrate–one zeda jewel is enough energy for the needs of the entire human population for two years. About seven percent of this accumulated energy is stored terrestrially, on land, in plants and soils. The rest is going into the oceans.

Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial revolution the atmosphere measured 228 ppm of carbon dioxide, whereas today the measurement is 400 ppm or more.

Dr. Sabine illustrated the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide with another measurement, the petagram. The current rate of release is right around 10 petagrams per year. The image Sabine offered in order for the audience to wrap our minds around this huge number was this: a 156,500 mile-long hopper car of coal would release one petagram. Thus, the current 10 petagrams would equal that hopper car of coal circling 70 times around the earth at the equator. To further illustrate, Sabine explained that the annual rate of 28,000 square miles of deforestation equals one petagram of carbon dioxide emission.

The culminating effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans is that the oceanic carbon cycle has been reversed. Pre-industrial revolution and climate change, oceans were a carbon source. Through their natural processes, they released carbon into the atmosphere that was, in turn, taken up by leaves, which then degraded into the soil system, where the carbon was stored. Now, oceans are a carbon sink. This increase is the cause of ocean acidification–because carbon dioxide is an acid gas. Dr. Sabine stated that pH balance is “very important for ocean ecosystems.”

Acidification makes it difficult for organisms to form shells, using reefs to weaken and bleach. In the arctic, shells are dissolving off snails. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral over the last three decades. Not only is ocean acidification problematic to marine species, one billion people globally rely on the oceans as a food source, some for 100 percent of their dietary protein.

NOAA has several programs to help coastal communities mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the organization’s goals is to create a “climate literate” public. In addition to these public support programs, NOAA offers a Climate Stewards Education Project. NOAA’s efforts are also linked with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The solution to ocean acidification is at once simple and enormous–humans must decrease carbon emissions. The time is now.

Featured image courtesy of wikicommons.

Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Sea turtles are exotic creatures encountered while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.

An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s Ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s Ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s Ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Featured image: A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photograph courtesy of USFWS.

Restoring the Herring River

Text and photographs by Christine Harris

In 1908 the Herring River Estuary in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a system supporting 1100 acres of salt marsh, was diked off, restricting normal tidal flow and eliminating all but 10 acres of the marsh. The reasoning behind the construction of the dike seems ludicrous in light of modern ecological understanding. Today an effort is being made to restore salt marshes throughout the country, including those of the Herring River Estuary.

At the turn of the twentieth century the quaint coastal town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts was becoming a popular resort area to which many wealthy city-dwellers flocked. One popular hotel, the Chequesset Inn, located near the mouth of the Herring River, attracted an elite clientele. Guests at the Chequesset, and other area establishments, enjoyed spending time relaxing by Wellfleet Harbor, but complained about the mosquitoes. At the time it was believed that the source of the mosquitoes was the Herring River, and it was thought that if the salt marshes of the estuary were eliminated, the mosquito population in the area would decrease significantly. Thus the Chequesset Neck Dike was constructed by the state in 1908, reducing the mouth of the river from a width of several hundred feet to six feet, and effectively cutting off tidal flow beyond the dike.

Cutting off tidal flow to the Herring River significantly affected the health of the ecosystem it supported. In place of native salt marsh plants the Herring River now hosts a number of invasive plant species, including a large amount of the invasive reed phragmites. Furthermore, without the flushing of the tides and the presence of saltwater minnows such as the mummichog, a type of killifish that feed on mosquito larva, the Herring River likely provides breeding grounds for more mosquitoes now than it did before it was diked off.

Once considered to provide little more than foul smells and insects, salt marshes are now recognized as biologically significant ecosystems on which many species, including humans, depend. Peat, the spongy layer of decomposing plant material which is the base of a salt marsh, has been recognized to provide a buffer from storm damage. When storm surges threaten coastlines, peat absorbs flood waters and reduces the height of these surges, protecting coastal communities from the impacts of severe flooding.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.

Salt marsh peat.

Another beneficial feature of salt marshes is their role as the nurseries of the ocean. Over two thirds of all commercially harvested seafood species, including shellfish, finfish, crabs, and lobsters, depend on the salt marsh for part of their life cycles. Salt marshes provide cover and camouflage for many of these harvestable species when they are young and most susceptible to predation, and provide a safe place for breeding and foraging. Salt marshes also have recreational value as popular places to fish, kayak, and contemplate the natural world.

With knowledge of the benefits which marshes provide, local communities, the state, the county and the Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on the task of restoring several previously degraded salt marsh systems on Cape Cod, including that of the Herring River. Most of these restoration projects focus on the use of gradual tidal restoration to reintroduce saltwater, along with the species of plants and animals it supports, over the course of many years.  The Herring River restoration project centers around the reconstruction of the Chequesset Neck Dike. The proposed structure would provide access to the public for fishing and boating and have a series of sluice gates that could allow for incremental tidal restoration across a width of 100 feet. Construction of the new dike is set to begin in 2016.

Featured image: The Herring River Estuary.