Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dreams of the Turtle Lady

Suzi Fox and the volunteers of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring program have saved thousands of turtles and shorebirds.

I rode over on an old beach cruiser that looked like all the paint had been replaced by rust.  Gorgeous is the right word to describe the day – sunshine pouring down like a veil and the Gulf of Mexico sparkling like a giant blue topaz.

As I turned into a quiet neighborhood, Spanish moss hung from a large tree and spiky epiphytes grew on overhead utility wires like hairy softballs.  We don’t have such things where I’m from but for Floridians, they’re weeds in the air.

I knew I was at the right place by the “Turtle Crossing” sign on the side fence and the brass doormat of swimming sea turtles.  I came to talk with Suzi Fox, the Executive Director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.  But if you ask people where to find the Turtle Lady, they’d point toward Suzi.  She said about the nickname “it’s a good thing I’m not saving skunks.”

Suzi answered the door bright and barefoot.  She welcomed me into her office, a small room in her pleasant home.  Her cheeks seemed to glow from often smiling -- a potential side effect of having a positive outlook.  Around her neck hung an ornament, a silver sea turtle, and I sat near boxes of red flags for marking sea turtle nests.

Suzi is as lively as her name and her twenty three years of turtle work implies.  That‘s twenty three years of combing the beach at 5 am every day six months out of the year.  That’s twenty three years of caring about something as magnificent and delicate as sea turtles eggs and infant sea turtles.

Walking sticks leaned against the wall in one corner of her office.  They stood like sentinels, or some kind of turtle egg divining rods.  One was topped with a hefty turquoise stone.  They have likely seen many a moon set, and the bright white sand glow with first light.

If Suzi or any of the other tireless volunteers find any turtle nests on their daily patrols, they stake it off.  The orange tape and wood stakes remind people that we share this lovely place with other creatures.

With the new turtle season freshly minted days ago, excitement filled Suzi’s eyes.  The turtles have not been on the island in six months.  The anticipation is almost overwhelming and always the question: will there be as many as last year?

“I dream turtles every night during the season,” Suzi said.

Let the dreams begin.  On this day, Suzi also has two pieces of good news – it’s early in the season and no one has left any lawn chairs on the beach and already one false crawl has been reported.

A false crawl happens when the female turtle essentially scopes out the beach but lays no eggs.  Trained observers can spot the telltale markings of a false crawl and the nests of buried eggs, both of which would earn nary a glance from the average beachgoer.

The turtles of Anna Maria Island, mostly loggerheads, like many marine turtles, essentially pull off one of nature’s greatest feats.  It’s prestige so fine and breathtakingly improbable that even scientists wax romantic.  No bigger than a toddler's hand, they climb their way out of a deep pit in the sand.  The turtles then make their way across the vast ocean completely on their own.

Scientists are not exactly sure what happens next but they are sure that an adult female turtle will return to the beach of her birth many years later and lay eggs.  They also know that the turtles regularly cross thousands of miles of dangerous seas.

The turtles survive the gauntlet of fishing hook strung hundreds of miles across the ocean like barbed wire.  Also, they must somehow dodge scoop-everything nets bigger than football fields.  Many of them do not make it.  The unintended catch of sea turtles kills thousands annually.

Suzi knows she cannot control those things but she can control protection of their habitat or surroundings.  In most places in Florida like Anna Maria Island, this entails a narrow ribbon of beach coveted by people and animals alike.

In fact, Suzi will say that she is not saving turtles; she’s saving their habitat.  The nuance is important because habitat loss to people is an insidious and often imperceptible slide into oblivion for countless species, including the sea turtle.  Take a little here, take a little there, soon enough there is none left.

The savings are beginning to pay off.  Last year, 362 nests were catalogued by Suzi and her team, which is a marked increase from the nineties.

Motherhood swirled around us as we talked.  Here I was visiting Suzi near Mother’s Day and female turtles laden with eggs were the heart of our conversation.  Also, it was Suzi’s mother that taught her how important it is to give back and her mother also indirectly helped Suzi discover her passion for turtles.

When Suzi’s mother died in the early nineties, Suzi went into serious depression.  The kind of malaise where getting out of bed and making it to the shower becomes too much.  Everything simply seemed hopeless. 

One day a friend dragged Suzi to the beach to look for turtles as part of the island’s nascent volunteer program.  Suzi is not a marine biologist and hails from Grand Rapids Michigan, a place with exactly zero sea turtles at last count. 

That was her first day and she’s still going strong.  The “still going strong” part comes from her mother, too.

“She was an inspiration for me,” said Suzi.

The female turtles laying eggs on the beach could probably relate.  There’s something eternal in their maternal ways. 

There’s bravery, too.  When Suzi was a young volunteer, the group of retired men who started the program refused to abide new federal rules on how to care for sea turtle eggs.  They had been digging up nests and incubating them on their back porches in coolers. 

Soon enough, they lost their permit.  Knowing nothing about managing a volunteer program or how to save turtles, Suzi re-applied for their permit.  The then mayor and one of the founders of the original turtle program yelled at her publicly.  Suzi cried, publicly.  All the turtle volunteers at the time quit the program.

“It was horrible,” Suzi said.

Eventually many original volunteers came back to the fold.  One volunteer has been with the “new” program for 18 years.  People are getting it.  A few years ago, Suzi sent out a call for a volunteer day.  She needed 50 people.  Two hundred showed up.  Some drove all the way from Orlando.

Recently, the program has expanded to keeping an eye on shore birds too, and other duties, some seemingly unrelated to saving turtles.

When the turtles hatch, they crawl toward the brightest spot in the night, which is hopefully stars over the ocean, and not a flood light on somebody’s home or business.  Like Mother Nature’s lost souls, many hatchings are lured away from the water and toward certain death by artificial lights. 

To remedy this, Suzi and some of her volunteers show up at retail and residential places with free special light bulbs, ladder in hand.

Suzi’s philosophy is to push for conservation “in a nice manner”.  Sometimes that works but sometimes there are people whose narrow view of the world is taken up mostly by themselves.

Recently, a developer proposed a project that would fill in sea grass habitat, a favorite sea turtle meal.  Suzi went to the public hearing and stood up in a sea of people.  Her blond hair and bright violet dress caught everyone’s attention.

“Last year we had 362 nests and 13,000 hatchlings,” she said. “If you don’t preserve these waters, 22 of my 55 years will have been pointless.”

Suzi noted that the handkerchiefs and tissues came out on that one.

Sometimes her turtle dreams are disrupted by early morning calls from the police.  She knows everyone on the force by first name and they certainly know the Turtle Lady.

The phone rings.  Suzi looks at her clock.  It’s 3 am.  She has to get up in two hours to patrol the beach.

Excitement dances on the line and Suzi has heard it before.  There’s an ancient animal on the beach doing a life affirming and miraculous thing.  The police felt they just had to let her know.

“Is she injured?”  Asks Suzi.

“No, she’s great,“ he says. "She’s amazing.”

“That’s wonderful.  Enjoy it.  I’ll see you later.” 

If Suzi can get back to sleep, there’s still time for more of her own turtle dreams.

Since May when I visited with Suzi, her team has protected 316 turtle nests, and multiple shorebirds including eight least terns, which are designated as threatened by the federal government. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Obvious Inspiration

Sometimes inspiration comes from the obvious places and that's why I enjoyed seeing Bill McKibben recently speak about the front lines of the climate fight.

He would know, as an author, activist, and founder of, he gets after it.  He gets arrested, gets people to rally, and gets important publicity.

His delivery, like that of a plaid-shirted Vermonter chatting over a cup of homemade Meade after a good log chopping session, is at first so unassuming as to make some climate fighters tap their fingers.  That's okay because pretty soon you realize that he is fired up and his words are fiery.

I'm not going to sum up his entire talk, it would not be possible, but here are some good paraphrased sound bites:
  • We need to leave leave 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

  • It is not okay to profit from the wreckage of our climate. 

  • Knowledge without action is the ruin of the soul (nod to Francois Rabelais).

  • Divest from fossil fuel companies.  Make them the political pariahs they are.

  • The Koch brothers will be on the losing side of history for two reasons: 1. The technology is here to replace them. 2. The recruiter for their opposition is Mother Nature. 

  • A price on carbon is great start and we need it now.

  • Natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel: 1. Methane leaks from natural gas production greatly increase greenhouse gases. 2. We're wasting too much time on natural gas; the urgency is now.

  • It is going to be a fight. We might not win but we must try.

Inspired?  Take Action.  Ten Ways to Fight Climate Change:

1. Find your local and get involved.
2. Ask your Senators and Representatives to support climate action and clean energy initiatives.
3. Stop by your reps' local offices.  In-person constituents are a powerful voice.
4. Call the White House.  Yes, it's possible, and your privilege.  Tell them you support climate leadership.
5. Write local press and tell them why you support clean energy.
6. Rock your social media -- tell ppl what you're doing, what's going on, and why you care. 
7. Kill the tar sands pipeline (getting oil from tar sands is an extremely dirty process).
8. Phase out Coal, the dirtiest of the dirty.
9. Ask your school or local university to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
10. Support clean energy businesses.     

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Energy Through a Leaf

I saw the headline -- Energy Through a Leaf -- and just had to get off my surfing wave for at least a few seconds. Then I noticed it was being developed by the military and any reader of some of my posts knows that I consider this good news.

If the military is in the act of innovating clean energy, it will probably get done.  It might not be a pretty or efficient but some of the most powerful technologies started in the military.  The military needs to get off fossil fuels because it is a strategic weakness, and nothing like a lucrative military contract to fuel this drive to find alternatives.

Plus, incubating and supporting clean energy through the military, traditionally a bipartisan hands-off part of the government, hopefully quiets those who live to ridicule government support of renewable projects.

So back to the leaf.  It's not actually a leaf, more like a wafer the size of a playing card that when dipped in water generates electricity, according to Clean Technica.  It does imitate how a plant produces energy (sugar) from sunlight and water, hence the leaf.

The lead Harvard researcher behind the technology, David Nocera, formerly at another not-too-shabby institution known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, continues to enhance and improve the device. 

In an earlier iteration the water the card dipped into had be purified but now the card can be dipped into dirty water.  The potential applications spark the imagination, and optimism grows.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mirror Energy Project Reflects the Big Picture

Out of the California desert comes a renewable energy project that hopefully sets a precedent and encourages future projects.

Instead of solar voltaics, an array of hundreds of mirrors reflects sunlight to a central tower.  The concentrated sun at the tower turns water into steam, which then turns turbines to make electricity. 

The project is a lesson in clearing multiple hurdles, including piles of permitting, but also reflects a new environmentalism where, to a degree, one issue trumps all others.

This is the somewhat famous project (that brings polluters so much glee) where environmentalists concerned about the threatened desert tortoise butted heads with environmentalists seeking a clean energy future. 

But the new world order of environmentalism asks all those who care about life on Earth to see the bigger picture.  While it is important to protect habitat, all habitat is threatened by climate change.

"If you care about desert tortoises, you better care about climate change.  Without some large-scale renewable energy projects, we do not hit our climate goals. We do not replace fossil fuels with clean energy in this country," said Carl Zichella with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an NPR article.

It looks like the future of the desert is much like its opposite -- the oceans.  The oceans are steadily being divided up into marine preserves, which is good, but the larger picture cannot be missed. 

Climate change from burning fossil fuels threatens all habitat including the vast oceans.  No number of marine reserves is going to stop ocean acidification and ocean warming if we do not support clean energy.

image: thisiscolossal .com

Friday, August 2, 2013

April Princess Beamer

Not a new Woody Allen film or some European royalty but April Princess Beamer are the names given to 3 sharks tagged recently off the eastern tip of Long Island.

Last year, the fish would have been hanging lifeless from a hook in the summer sunset.  People would gawk and take photos of the dead animal but everyone would glimpse its magnificence.  Then it would be thrown away.  Sound like a waste or even a bit sad?

It sounded exactly that to two Montauk, NY residents, April Gornik and Rav Freidel, who this year worked with the gracious and forward-thinking marina owner, Carl Darenburg, to make a slight but significant change to his annual Shark's Eye tournament

The result was the first ever catch and release shark tournament in Montauk, called the shark fishing capitol of the US by many.

"I really enjoyed watching them swim away," said a longtime shark fisherman and Montauk native.

“It’s about getting sustainable fisheries,” Rav Friedel said in the New York Times.  Rav watches out for sharks and Montauk's natural gems through Concerned Citizens of Montauk.

 The message is clear - sharks are in jeopardy worldwide as millions are killed for shark fin soup but we can still enjoy the thrill of catching them in a sustainable way.

Over two days, boats caught and released 31 makos and 30 blue sharks.  The three that were tagged (there were only a handful of satellite tags as they are expensive) can be tracked in real time by anyone for free on OCEARCH.

Right now Princess and Beamer are swimming off the continental shelf about sixty miles from the southern New Jersey coast.  Check them out.

As a nice backdrop to the tournament, supporting organizations provided information and presentations in a large yellow tent at the marina while the boats were out to sea.

Peconic Baykeeper taught people how runoff pollution impacts water quality and what can be done about it.  Nancy Kohler of the National Marine Fisheries Service was the go-to shark guru for any shark questions.

The Shark Brothers, Sean and Brooks Paxton, emceed the festivities under the tent and provided lively updates on shark's caught and tagged.  After the tournament, Carl decided to require circle hooks that are easy on the sharks in all his shark tournaments going forward.

Measured in smiles and not one shark carcass hanging on the dock, the tournament was a huge success.     

See CBS News video coverage of the tournament.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Time for a Jig! It's a Fish Revivial

Hope flows freely as a dam comes down in Maine.

Reading the story about the dam is reading about the recovery of nature.  It is a nice change of pace to not hear of hope dashed and hope lost in an environmental piece. Rather, it's hope found with the simple removal of a dam.

It's also a pleasant surprise to see the phrase "fish revival".  That's a rare one in the often gloomy world of conservation and advocacy.  It seems like the battles are ongoing and the capitalistic machine will never stop grinding away at the earth's bounty and beauty.  But here's a good cause for celebration.

"Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said some members of his tribe had made new fish spears in the hopes that they might soon be able to fish for salmon for the first time since 1985, resurrecting tribal practices.

"'I think we’ll come back to a balance, where the river is doing well. It’s historic when a lot of people have lived and died seeing its demise, he said,'" according to the New York Times.