On July 18, 1975, the tanker Garbis spilled 1,500 to 3,000 barrels of crude oil into the warm, turquoise, coral-rich waters roughly 26 miles south-southwest of the Marquesas Keys, Florida. The oil was blown ashore along a 30-mile stretch of the Florida Keys, east of Key West. I was 16 and enjoying my second summer at Seacamp, a marine science camp on Big Pine Key. Rumors of the spill raced throughout the campus until finally, instructor James Smithson decided to find out for himself what menace might be approaching. He took a small away team aboard his 21-foot Mako, “Isurus,” and made haste south toward the reef tract. We waited impatiently for word back as the sun fell to the horizon and scattered its tranquil orange glow across the water. What I saw next filled me with dread. The Isurus entered the harbor, its white hull stained with enormous swaths of dark brown oil. In that moment the menace was no longer abstract, and to my young mind, everything we treasured — the corals, the mangroves, the fish, the turtles –was on the brink of extermination. [Read more…]
Remember Eastern Airlines? I do. And I’m forever grateful to the long-gone carrier for transporting me to a new world exactly 35 years ago, a world that I’ve never left. On June 24, 1974, I boarded Eastern Airlines flight 35 in Philadelphia, sat myself in seat 12A, a window of course. Scheduled departure was 900am. The Boeing 727 rumbled down the runway, and two and half magical hours later, a 15-year-old teenager from Philly found himself in Miami, Florida, eager with anticipation of catching his first glimpse of the Florida Keys, wherever they were. I didn’t know. Someone had to draw a map for me on a napkin.
I hadn’t seen it snowing sideways with such intensity since I rode out the "Storm of the Century" in Cape May, New Jersey. Of course, I was looking out the window of a Boeing 737 in motion, very definitely a moving frame of reference, so perhaps the "sideways" part was somewhat exaggerated, but the intensity part wasn’t. On our final approach, I was mesmerized by the sight of a buried St. Louis, Missouri slowly coming into view through a milky night sky, blanketed by the blizzard that was on top of it. The Interstate was a broad white ribbon snaking through the tranquil-looking city, with just a handful of headlights and tailights of vehicles making what must have been an incredibly perilous journey. I would soon be among them.
Woven deeply into every speech I have ever given about exploring the oceans is a reverant tribute to Lewis and Clark and their epic expedition to the new American west. Dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the vast new territory recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also searched, in vain, for the fabled northwest passage, a water route connecting Atlantic and Pacific through North America, sought by explorers for centuries as a shorter trade route. I always carry the audiobook version of their original journals on my iPod, and their own words describing their fascinating encounters with wildlife, native Americans, and emotional reflections on the profound natural beauty that unfolded before them continue to ignite my imagination and desire to explore as if I were still 12 years old.
I hadn’t been to Kansas in 25 years, since my then-girlfriend’s ’72 Dodge Dart broke down at 2 AM square in the middle of our transcontinental journey to San Diego. The dash went dark, the engine quit, and the car silently rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the Interstate. I opened the hood and was greeted by flames, which I somehow managed to blow out, probably with the help of the ever-present midwest winds which were howling that night. They had to wake up a State Trooper to rescue us. Twenty five years later, the winds still howl as I remember them.