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.

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A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush

Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.

White Nose Syndrome: Formidable but Not Undefeatable

Some months ago I shared with readers information about the ecological and economical value bats provide in the widely various ecosystems in which they live. They are particularly valuable in protecting crops from destruction by insects, gobbling up so many bugs that bats are estimated to save farmers up to $53 billion in pest control each year. Bats are also very important for pollination and tropical reforestation. More than 1,331 species of bats have been discovered worldwide. But my favorite fact about bats is that they are the only mammal to evolve true flight. There are other animals that glide but bats are the only mammal that truly have wings and self-propelled flight capabilities. Such marvels!

Bats are now vulnerable to a large and rapidly increasing threat known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves, which leads to starvation. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America.

According to White-Nose Syndrome.org, at the end of the 2014-2015 hibernating season, bats with WNS were confirmed in the following 26 states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. The fungus that causes WNS has also been confirmed in Minnesota and Mississippi.

In this context, it is with cautious jubilance that I share the news that 150 bats that were part of the first field trial were released after having been successfully treated for WNS. Scientists and conservationists that are part of the large network of collaborators combating WNS gathered in the evening of Monday, May 18, 2015 at the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, MO and released these bats back to the wild.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.  Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.
Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Beginning in 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and other Georgia State University peers determined that the bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, can inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that Rhodococcus rhodochrous, without even directly touching the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, could strongly inhibit its growth. Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner continued to conduct laboratory research on the application of this bacterium, and in the winter of 2014 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves, thanks to funding by many organizations including Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. 

Multi-agency collaboration has been integral to the search for a treatment for White Nose Syndrome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers most of the federal funds provided by Congress to fight the disease, and many state wildlife agencies contribute staff and funds of their own in surveying for the fungus as it has traveled throughout their regions. There are also numerous private donors. This elaborate network of scientists and financial backers will continue this management-based research to control the mortality of WNS and, I believe, eventually eradicate its destruction of bats.

Here is a video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife describing WNS and the importance of bats.

Rethinking Wilderness After The Wilderness Act

Dear Readers, I am moving this week, so instead of writing for you, I’m sharing this excellent article with you from another blog I really enjoy and admire. Neva

Peeling Back the Bark

Have you ever been in an urban forest and had the feeling that you were off in the wild because you could no longer hear any cars? Did you find yourself on a river trail and felt as Emerson did when he wrote, “In the woods, is perpetual youth”? Or have you been in state park, turned on a trail and thought, “Geez, I’m in the wilderness!”? I can answer “yes” to all three of those questions. Here in the Durham area we have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead State Park, respectively, to explore and escape to. I find being in the forest—and what feels like wilderness in this increasingly urbanized region—is often restorative, if not transformative.

Scholars will tell you there are both legal and cultural constructs of wilderness. While Duke Forest, Eno River, and Umstead State Park are not, by legal definition, wilderness, such places do…

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Predators at my Window: The Recovery of Predator Populations in Southern New England

The author's rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The author’s rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By: Richard Telford

On an early Saturday morning this past January, working at my desk that faces the eastern sunrise, my gaze was arrested by a sudden movement crossing the breaking sun.  My desk window faces a break in the 18th century stonewall that encloses our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse on three sides; beyond this wall break is a massive brush pile that I have created as I’ve cut back overgrowth along the wall edges to increase light and decrease Lyme tick habitat.  On this particular morning, I experienced a momentary disconnect as I gazed at the unusually stocky, bob-tailed housecat that had broken the line of the emerging sun, quickly realizing that it was, of course, no housecat but instead a bobcat (Lynx rufus).  While bobcats are reasonably common in our area, they are crepuscular—largely active in the twilight hours—and thus difficult to sight.  Further, like most mammalian predators at the upper trophic levels, they are discreet in their interactions with humans. In the twelve years I had lived in our farmhouse, I had never seen one prior to that morning.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of the bobcat seen from his study window.

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) seen from his study window.

I quickly called my wife, six-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son to the window, where we watched this particular specimen as it stood with its forelegs perched on an angular piece of granite half-buried in front of the brush pile, likely a stone toppled from the wall years earlier.  Finally, the bobcat vanished into the woods east of our house, likely heading towards the series of stepping stone parcels that comprise the 324-acre Natchaug State Forest, which borders the 1765-acre James L. Goodwin State Forest, providing a significant habitat for bobcats as well as a sizeable eastern coyote population.

Seeing the bobcat at our window was for me a euphoric moment, similar to the moment I first saw a black bear (Ursus americanus) in the wild at close quarters fifteen years ago while through-hiking Shenandoah National Forest with my brother, bypassing the summer-crowded Appalachian Trail leg in favor a network of abandoned club trails dating to the 1930s.  In both cases, each moment of wonder was tempered by concern, and it is this balance that, in my view, largely defines the interaction of the American public with regional predator populations.  We long for wilderness, but we likewise crave safety, not just in the context of the natural world but in the whole of our lives.  The former impulse can lead us to conserve, while the latter may prompt us to destroy.  Effectively balancing these two desires is central to ensuring the safety of both predator species and their human observers.

In Shenandoah, my brother and I would go on to have eleven more close encounters with black bears which, like us, gravitated to moving water sources in the valleys during a period of severe drought.  Each interaction filled us with wonder, but we also remained aware that an encounter gone bad could end terribly, both for us and the bear.  One afternoon, crossing a brushed-choked summit with a narrow cut-through along its ridge, we became acutely aware of this.  Pounded by rain that largely drowned out most other noise, we repeatedly heard the crushing of brush in feverish spurts off to our right.  We continued to hear these irregular utterances until, perhaps ten yards off the trail, we saw the head of a large black bear rise like a periscope from the brush, its nose drawing in heavy drafts of air that no doubt included our scent.  Perhaps a second or two later, a movement to our left drew our gaze, a cub that had treed itself in the skeletal remains of a long-dead conifer.  Alarmed, we sprinted down the trail, our heavily-laden packs jangling loudly as we put distance between ourselves and the franticly searching sow bear.  Though with less urgency, the need to balance the desire for wilderness with the desire for safety permeated our sighting of the bobcat less than fifteen feet from our house on that early January morning.

While a bobcat poses no significant threat to an adult human unless it is rabid, our three children—ages six, two, and one—fall well within the weight range of typical bobcat prey.  A study published in The American Midland Naturalist documented the bobcat’s ability to take prey up to eight times its body weight, in that case fully grown white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Further, while bobcats in southern New England feed primarily on Eastern and New England cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus transitionalis), in winter they will vary their diet significantly when prey is less abundant.  Pound for pound, they are fierce and capable predators.  Thus, though our sighting of this particular bobcat filled us with wonder, it also made us pause in terms of managing the threat that it represents, albeit a remote one.  While this may seem an overreaction to some, the lack of such caution among the general public, arguably, represents a more serious threat not just to humans but to upper-level predator species as well. One widely reported negative predator-human interaction has the capacity to significantly alter the public view of a predator species, even when that interaction stems primarily from poor decision-making at the human end—e.g. the classic bear-feeding dilemma at refuse dumps in national parks and other such sites.  Thus, if we wish to preserve these species, we must shape our interactions with them with greater awareness.

During the first half of the twentieth century, upper-level predator species in Connecticut had largely been eliminated, but by the 1950s, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, western coyotes (Canis latrans) migrating eastward reached northwestern Connecticut, eventually dispersing statewide. Interestingly, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart, a likely product of interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves (Canis lupus) during migration.  Additionally, a 1988 reintroduction program aimed at restoring Connecticut’s fisher cat (Martes pennant) population, decimated in the late nineteenth century by excessive logging, has been successful in establishing a robust enough population that the state initiated a limited trapping season in 2005.  Red and gray foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are likewise abundant in Connecticut, and the black bear population has grown considerably over the past twenty years.  From a practical point of view, the recovery of predator populations in Connecticut has lead to a significantly healthier food web, and a more vital and ecologically sound set of natural systems and organismal interactions.

From a spiritual point of view, there is an unquantifiable gratification that comes from living within a more complete ecosystem.  At night, we frequently hear the howling of coyotes along with the calling of barred and great horned owls, and, though these sounds are ubiquitous in rural northeastern Connecticut, they never fail to evoke in us a sense of gratitude for the privilege of living beside these remnants of long ago wilderness, these creatures that have adapted to a shifting landscape that has been shaped and reshaped by anthropogenic change.  Interestingly, one particular anthropogenic change, late nineteenth-century farm abandonment, has probably bolstered the aforementioned recovery of upper-level predator populations in Connecticut more than any other single factor.  Northeastern Connecticut, for example, has returned to a 78% forested landscape, albeit a fragmented one in contrast to pre-Columbian days.  Thus, this recovery will likely maintain an upward trajectory until the various populations approach their respective carrying capacities.  This is cause both for celebration and caution, as noted earlier.  We must eschew the historic, almost fanatical human impulse to extirpate predator populations, an impulse largely rooted in fear—a tall order when, as a society, we grow increasingly transfixed to electronic screens and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.  The fear, whether it relates to physical or economic harm, must be mitigated through education, must be tempered by on-the ground realities.  It cannot, however, be fully eliminated, nor should it be.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Last month, I walked with my daughter out to the brush pile outside my study window. That morning, we were looking for evidence of cottontail rabbits—likely introduced eastern cottontail rather than the declining, native New England cottontail—that we believe are occupying a former woodchuck (Marmota monax) burrow.  Down the hill from the brush pile is an old farm dump that, based on its contents, appears to have been used by former occupants of our house from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk down to the dump, and her response surprised me.  She told me she did not want to walk in woods where there might be foxes.  I assured her that a fox would likely never attack her, especially with an adult present, and, by the time we reached the farm dump, she seemed to have shed her fear entirely.

The author's six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author's study window in the early morning hours.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The author’s six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author’s study window in the early morning hours. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Several weeks later, early in the morning, I saw through my study window what looked to be a breeding pair of red foxes.  They trotted along the edge of the clearing south of the brush pile and quickly vanished.  The night before, a light, late-season snow had covered the ground, and, when my daughter awoke, I told her what I had seen.  When breakfast was done, I took her and our two-year-old son out to see if we could find the track trail.  Though the snow was wet and already melting, we were able to distinguish several tracks, and my daughter quickly grew engrossed in the process. This prompted other observations as well: several small rodent tunnels in deep pockets of snow; a lone, half-opened milkweed pod with the gauzy filaments of its coma ruffling in the light breeze; a half-toppled apple tree, its sweet bark gnawed by a hungry white-tailed deer.

I aimed that morning to ease the sense of fear my daughter had expressed several weeks before and foster instead her already-strong sense of wonder.  The latter already largely defines her view of the natural world, and it took little that day to draw it out, but it is tempered at times by the equally natural and logical fears of childhood.  As noted above, we must mitigate but not shed those fears entirely in adulthood as we look to coexist with increasing upper-level predator populations.  A healthy fear can guide us to interact with these populations with foresight and a sense responsibility for their continued survival; it encourages us, as well, to foster such interactions in our children.  A healthy fear can guide us to take reasonable precautions: to secure our refuse properly, to protect small pets and livestock from undue exposure to predation, to manage compost piles and bird-feeding stations with awareness of the drawing effect they can have for upper-level predators.  A healthy fear in this context perhaps translates to a deep respect for these extraordinary creatures, for their survival needs, for their instinctual drives developed over millennia, for their right to exist in the world, and for the way in which they enrich that world by their presence and diminish it with their absence.

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

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, 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 over 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.

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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.

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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.

Follow this link to detailed information about the natural history of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.