Waiting for the Oil?

Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys

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

OMG, I Thought You Were Dead!

You’ve seen it in the faces of infants when they recognize their mother’s smiling face above. You’ve seen it on the face of an old friend across the room when she suddenly recognizes you…after all those years. And Doug Shulz, producer at Partisan Pictures, saw it clearly on my face, when he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly 35 years.

When we humans recognize a friend, our faces convey it with a distinctive widening of the eyes. Combine that with the surprise of seeing someone we aren’t expecting to see, our eyes grow even wider, often accompanied by a cartoon-like jaw drop. Judging from Doug’s expression while observing my face, I can only imagine how wide my eyes were. Since we were 20 feet beneath Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters, it must have been difficult for him to discern between an expression of surprise and delight versus a textbook example of wide-eyed diver panic. My eyes were transfixed on my old friend with a funny name whom I hadn’t laid eyes on since I was a teenager. Larger than life, vibrant, and embracing the sun, my friend was very much alive and healthy, clearly enjoying the good life in Cuba.

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A Message to Eastern Airlines, 35 Years Late

Eastern AirlinesRemember 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.

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Can Cuba’s Mysteries Help Save the World’s Coral Reefs?

Healthy elkhorn coral in Cuba's Gulf of Mexico (Photo by Abel Valdivia)Until that tranquil morning in late June 1974, the sum total of my SCUBA diving experience had been in a landlocked state, in a stifling, moldy indoor YMCA pool in the Philadelphia suburbs and a Pennsylvania quarry, flooded with icy soup-green water. Barely comprehending the new world of pungent humidity, mountainous afternoon cumulus clouds, and lush tangles of flowering succulents I experienced at water’s edge during my first visit to the Florida Keys, I was wholly unprepared later that morning when I found myself seated in sugar-white sand with 40 feet of warm, clear aquamarine water above my head. As impossibly multi-colored fish passed slowly within reach before my wide 15-year-old eyes, my gaze broadened as I marveled at the towering jetties of coral around us, living layer cakes of corals upon corals, brown and mustard rock-like structures, encrusted with brilliant red, violet and orange coralline fans and branches, swaying in the warm, nourishing current and, like eager spring blossoms, reaching toward the dancing sunlight scattered on the surface above. Read more

The Heart of the Bering Sea Beats with Discovery

Kenneth Lowyck in DeepWorker Just Before Discovering a New Species

Kenneth Lowyck in DeepWorker

It’s hard to get a big smile out of Ken Lowyck, Greenpeace’s capable Action Unit Coordinator (and sub pilot) based in Toronto. I snapped the photo to the right and captured Ken’s pre-dive excitement last summer on August 1, just minutes before he was launched on the dive to 700 feet in Pribilof Canyon in the Bering Sea that resulted in one of the expedition’s most important discoveries. I imagine the modest smile that appeared on his face has returned today as Greenpeace has announced that the tiny, unassuming white sponge he retrieved on that dive was never before documented by Homo sapiens, and may well herald future announcements of other new species from the expedition. Read more

Blogus interruptus

Guanahacabibes, Cuba Read any authority’s advice about blogs and you’ll see at the top of the list: “Blog regularly.” Even for someone who enjoys writing as much as I do, I don’t believe in writing for writing’s sake — I like to share original experiences and ideas, not just rehash stale news. Still, I’ve experienced quite a few blog-worthy adventures in the four months since my last post shortly after the Bering Sea Expedition, but haven’t written a single word. Read more

A Sea Turtle Is Born in Alaska

Esperanza Returns to a Tranquil UnalaskaI awakened at 4am in my bunk to something strange. The ship was still. After enduring two days of pounding seas and gale-force winds, we had at last arrived at the island of Unalaska and were nearing the port of Dutch Harbor. A few hours later, juggling my cameras, I tried in vain to capturethe profound tranquility of that early Alaskan morning as dawn’s gentle glow painted small swaths of green across the surrounding mountains atop a canvas of deep blues and grays.An incredible journey was nearing its end, and I was reluctant to let go. So was the wildlife. In a moment, the morning silence was replaced by shrieks from the deck below. They were shrieks of joy as once again we were surrounded by whales as a pod of humpbacks divided itself evenly and passed closely along both sides of us, filling the morning air with their spouts and flukes. Read more

Attacked by the Giant Squid’s Cousins

Attack of the Giant Squid's Cousins!

Squid Attack!

It’s the fantasy of many a marine biologist and explorer. To catch a glimpse of the giant squid, alive,and in its natural habitat: The deep ocean. Giant squid have been scientifically documented at a size of up to an incredible 43 feet long based on specimens that have washed ashore. I’ve seen one such specimen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Laying there pickled and motionless in its sterile white display case, it was hard to imagine this animal rocketing about the dark depths, living up to its reputation as a formidable predator. During one of his talks when I first met oceanographer Bob Ballard, he compared trying to find the giant squid from a submersible to trying to find an F-15 jet racing by, on a mountain top, at night, in a driving rainstorm, with a flashlight. Yesterday I had second thoughts about looking for the giant squid when one of its cousins, less than 2% of its size, disabled my sub and aborted my dive as I was descending through 1,300 feet.

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Where Condos Fall from the Sky

The sublimely pink deepwater coral, Swiftia pacifica

The sublimely pink deepwater coral, Swiftia pacifica

They look strange, out of place — and they are. Because they’re not from around here. The odd-shaped stones and boulders that pepper the flat, dark, silty bottom here at nearly 1,800 feet look like meteorites, each surrounded by a wide, shallow crater. They’re not from outer space, but many have traveled a vast distance on Earth — hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, over millennia. And now my sub is face to face with one of three I’d encounter on our first dive in Zhemchug Canyon yesterday (Saturday) afternoon.

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Alone in the Dark with a Pen Light

Trawl scar on bottom, DeepWorker 7 in background

Trawl scar on bottom, DeepWorker 7 in background

Yesterday (Thursday) morning, Michelle Ridgway and I descended in the twin subs for our expedition’s penultimate dive on Pribilof Canyon.Michelle’s lights shone as tiny pinpoints in the distant green as the light from above slowly vanished and the cold darkness of Pribilof Canyon enveloped us.I had a rare moment amid the descent’s harried series of checks and radio transmissions to reflect on where I was, and Michelle’s lights reminded me of how tiny we were, trying to comprehend an enormous, complex tapestry in the darkness armed with only a pen light. But on this dive, some of those complexities began to tell a story. Read more