Tag Archives | species conservation

For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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The Silent Extinction of the Giraffe

Giraffes have been in the news lately. The birth of a male baby giraffe at Animal Adventure Park in Upstate New York had giraffe fans from all over the world in ecstasy, only for this happy news to be overcast by bigger, less enjoyable news. Giraffe populations are falling. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), giraffe population dropped by 40% in the past three decades, while some subspecies have declined by 80-90%. Despite these numbers and the animal’s popularity, the danger to giraffes remains largely unnoticed, prompting experts to call this a “silent extinction.”

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to travel through Botswana and Zimbabwe with my family. We visited several of the area’s wildlife preserves and saw elephants, giraffes, lionesses, wild dogs, and countless wildebeest, antelope and other ungulates as well as colorful fantastic birds. I still remember my first sighting of an elephant. We were driving in a Land Rover and still reeling from our guide having run over a bird, still wary of tse-tse flies, still wondering where exactly we can pee (if we need to) in this wilderness of low acacia trees and wide open spaces. When the vehicle stopped, we looked about us, wondering what was wrong. “Elephant on the right,” the guide explained, and one confused moment later, we turned to the right, and there it was: a giant flapping its ears, staring at us.

As I write this, it occurs to me, it was afraid of us. It flapped and stared, and then, with a snap and a crackle of the vegetation around it, it was gone.

On our final safari day, about to exit the park and head over to Victoria Falls (our last stop on that trip) we saw a large herd of giraffes. They seemed numerous, surreal, like a cloud of gnats except tall and huge and somehow orange against the yellow and grey-green of the African savannah. When we saw the wild dogs several days before, our guide paused for an hour to admire and photograph them. This time, perhaps eager to get rid of us and go home, he pressed his foot on the accelerator, and on we zoomed, passing by the giraffes as though they were a common sight, as though they will always be there for us if we ever came back, as though they were nothing but a blur.

Someone said to me not too long ago: “Why are conservationists working so hard to keep pandas alive? Let them go extinct if they must, but don’t keep them alive in artificial ways and artificial places.” Why, indeed? Why are some people fighting so hard — even risking their lives — to keep the last few giant pandas, mountain gorillas, and rhinos from dying out? Why do scientists and conservationists warn us again and again of the plight of the polar bears, frogs, elephants and bats?

According to experts (see the Center for Biological Diversity or E.O. Wilson’s books) between 30% and 80% of the world’s species could be gone by 2050 — that’s thirty-three years from now. I was born in 1972 and potentially could still be alive in 2050. My son and daughter, born at the turn of this century, would in all likelihood live to see whether this prediction comes true. In order to imagine the magnitude of this extinction event, which some call the Sixth Extinction (and say we’re in the midst of it right now), E.O. Wilson recommends looking around us, and then imagining 80% of everything gone. If outside my window there are live oaks, valley oaks, black oaks, bay trees, poison oak, hound’s tongue, blue dicks (these are two kind of wildflower), madrones, redwoods, and manzanita, this could mean that by 2050 potentially only two of these species would still exist. And this prediction refers not only to plant life, but to animals as well.

Perhaps some can imagine a world without pandas, without dolphins, manatees, or giraffes. Perhaps some think, so what? So what if they’re gone? We humans are inventors, creators. We will make something else beautiful to replace them. Today, some might say, we can do almost anything, and it is only a matter of time before we can create whole new animals from scratch. Some might rejoice at a world without poison oak, or ants, mosquitos or yellow jackets. But to me, and perhaps to you too, our world becomes poorer with each species that goes extinct. I have never seen the dodo or the great auk. The passenger pigeon flew its last flight over the Eastern United States before I was born, and the Steller’s sea cow, a relative of the manatee, floated its last in the North Pacific kelp even before my great-great grandmother was a thought in her mother’s mind. There will never be a dodo or a great auk to replace them. The richness of two-hundred species of frogs and their myriad interwoven contributions to the natural world can never be reproduced and will never be experienced again.

Doing something for the world doesn’t have to be hard or require you to pull out your purse. Commit not to drink from straws and bring that cup to Starbucks in order to reduce your plastic usage (in fact, skip the Starbucks altogether and make yourself coffee at home). Turn off the lights behind you when you leave a room. Go for a walk with a child and teach them about appreciating nature. Or even better, go outside right now and hug a tree or appreciate the song of a bird or the flight of a hawk. We’re doing this not just for the survival of the pandas, giraffes, and golden frogs, but for our own kids, who — has it occurred to you when the estimate of 80% of all that you see around you was mentioned before? — may also be one of the species facing extinction thirty-three years away in an unknown future.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109