Friday, November 6, 2009

Alacranes Blog 1

It’s hard to imagine a place so beautiful and so bountiful can in reality be suffering
At first glance the reef is swarming with life but with a closer look, there is a lot missing. The swarms we see at first are missing some key species. Unlike the meats we eat that come from land, most of the fish we consume are predators. Think about it when you drop a line into the water in hopes of catching dinner you don’t bait your hook with algae or coral, you bait it with fish. The predators are missing I’ve yet to see a shark. Snapper are around but most of them are small specimens. I’ve seen but a few small grouper. This is the largest reef system in the Gulf of Mexico; it should be central breeding ground for these important species, yet they are either absent or very small. The reasons are obvious, fishing boats dot the horizon tourist season brings crowds of 500 or more people to the island at a time and all the while the reef struggles to maintain its ecosystem. On other photographic expeditions I have visited places that are better protected and places that are quite a bit more remote. The feeling that I’ve always had on those trips is that I was in a place where the scales were precariously balanced even leaning slightly more towards catastrophe. I’ve always fought for these places to maintain their ecosystems that are so vital to the entire oceans health. In the Alacranes we are seeing what happens when those scales are tipped drastically, there is little to no protection. It’s beautiful out here, and it’s not too far gone that it can’t be brought back. Without action now, this place will soon become an ocean desert, and there will be no choice but to stop fishing here because there will be nothing left.

Alacranes Blog 2

We went in search of tiger sharks today. My guide, Ascan, said that he knew of a spot in deep water where they can be seen, so we spent about an hour motoring along the coral until we reached a channel that took us out to the open ocean on the far end of the reef. We dropped anchor in deep blue water. For the first time we were diving in a place too deep to see the bottom.
I was disappointed, I didn’t get to see or photograph any tiger sharks today but we did see a few of the largest grouper I have ever encountered as well as a lobster at least double the size of anything I’d ever seen before. As a kid growing up in Bermuda I can remember my dad donating a lobster to the aquarium that he caught because it was too big to fit in the oven. This monster I saw today was even bigger, big enough that it shared a cave with two grouper that easily weighed in at over 100 pounds. All of these giants were in 165ft of water, the deepest I will probably do on this trip.
It’s a well know fact that these oceanic species that humans have been consuming since we learned how to fish have been getting smaller and smaller in recent times. They cannot live long enough to grow to their full potential before being caught. It is at their full size that they can produce greater numbers of offspring as well, so we humans really don’t seem to be thinking this out too well.
On side note I also saw the largest moray eel I’ve seen, well . . .that I’ve ever seen, on a shallower dive later in the day. He wasn’t too interested in coming out for a photo but judging from what I saw I can say it was well over 10 feet long. Today marked the half-way point of my stay on Alacranes reef. It was a day to see giants. Tomorrow, I go to another even more remote island to do more research for Island Conservation on the invasive plant species that have made it out here.

Alacranes Blog 3

Did you know that there is a link between sea birds and coral reefs? I didn’t know that until just before came on this photographic expedition. A friend of mine at UCSC put it plainly. Bird droppings, are a fertilizer for coral. I’d never put these things together, and always sort of looked at birds as takers, not givers in the ecological cycle of the ocean.
So, instead of just taking other peoples word for it, I did a little bit observing while I was on Alacranes. I dove well over a dozen different locations on the reef. Some of the dives were greatly separated from the islands which hold colonies of nesting gannets and frigate birds, and other dives where just down current from these islands.

The evidence startled me to say the least. It is hard to isolate the corals that are bleaching from rising ocean temperature, toxic pollutants from boats, or just plain human impact from fishermen and tourists alike. There was however an obvious vitality to the reefs that were just down current from the islands. They thrived, the coral suffered less bleaching, the fish were more numerous, and things seemed to be balanced.

Before I came to Alacranes I got in touch with Island Conservation, a group out of Santa Cruz, California. I offered to do a little bit of reconnaissance for them, as they are expanding their conservation efforts to include the gulf, and the Caribbean.

We know that sea birds are suffering, and that their numbers along with everything else are in decline. One of the problems is the invasive species, that - no surprise - humans have introduced, mostly without even knowing we’d done it. On an island that had few natural predators for these birds since they first came here, suddenly, rats have shown up, and are eating the eggs and the young birds that not too long ago had nothing to worry about.

So far, the problem isn’t completely out of hand here. The birds don’t nest year round, and the rats don’t have much to survive on when the birds aren’t nesting, save the trash left behind by tourists, and leftovers dumped out by the park rangers. So for now, the birds are okay. None the less, it is a problem that we will need to address at some point.

Alacranes Blog 4

I’m sitting on the edge of an Island, watching the sun set over the ocean. The only thing that gives pause to the feeling that I’m completely alone out here is a distant lighthouse, on an Island that is itself far from any real sort of “civilization.” I’m alone as I watch the colors reflect in the perfectly formed little waves as they run up white sand forming perfect little barrels for imaginary miniature surfers. Sunsets will happen until the end of the world. Until the earth ceases to orbit the sun. Long after we have exhausted all of the oceans resources, the colors will still be there, but will they still hold the same power over us?

Looking out over the ocean, we see the unknown. We see a vastness. The inky black depths that hide unknown sea creatures, all implied by the deep ocean swells rolling across the horizon. We see a world that we know very little about, and fear.

It is because of that fear, that we’ve managed to ignore the fact that we’ve all but eliminated the creatures that live there. Most of us are not seeing this decline on a daily basis, so we find it hard to imagine, and since we don’t really understand the implications of a dead ocean, we don’t fear the consequences.

Phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that bloom in the ocean produce between 50-90 percent of the earths oxygen. All life on earth depends on oxygen at some point in it’s lifecycle. An ocean without phytoplankton is a world without sufficient oxygen.

It is only a matter of time until we have no choice but to make an effort to “save the ocean.” That effort will be born out of fear for ourselves, and not compassion for the creatures that live there.

Think for a moment, about what this planet would be like without humans. The sun would still set, with all of the same glory that it carries with it now. The plains of North America would be running rampant with vast herds of buffalo. Elephants would not be on the verge of extinction. In fact, all of the animals that suffered extinction at the hand of humanity would still be flourishing in the wild.

Imagine the ocean though, what would the ocean look like without human influence. It’s hard for us to imagine what that might look like, because most of us have never seen anything close to the natural state of things.

As perfect as this world would be, there would be nobody there to appreciate it. Who would sit and watch the sun set, and ponder the vast depths, and the magnificent creatures that lie just beyond the scope of our imagination? In the not to distant future when we look out over a dead ocean and watch a beautiful sunset we will be looking at a monument to our own greed, and our inability to change our course.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I leave for the Alacranes tomorrow morning. I'll be blogging to the National Geographic an ILCP websites at these links: NGS ILCP

I am also part of this cool new show/campaign called Expedition Granted, and to see what that's all about go to this link. Expedition Granted

I'll need as many votes as I can get to win the grant that National Geographic is promoting, so if you want to help the marine ecosystem of Rio Sirena, send the Expedition Granted link out to as many people as possible. I'll be on my Alacranes Expedition when voting starts on the 26th, so I won't be able to do too much self promotion!

Here's a cool little video I put together of me getting all packed up for the 2 weeks I'll be spending on a dessert island starting in only 2 days!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Alacranes Reef Expedition

As is the case with expeditions, as hard as I try not to procrastinate, still, it seems like all of the important stuff doesn’t get done till the last minute. I’m sitting here in an internet cafe feverishly writing e-mails, ordering items, and researching the destination that I’ll be leaving for in only 9 days. I’m going to the Alacranes reef in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve been asked to photograph the Alacranes reef by the “International League of Conservation Photographers.” A group that I’ve been peripherally involved with up until this expedition

They are sending me to this endangered reef 65 miles north of the Yucatan Peninsula to document the marine ecosystem. With the photos, we will be petitioning to create a greater level of protection for this still emerging reef platform.

The Alacranes is the largest barrier reef system in the Gulf of Mexico, and is still growing. With the warming of the ocean, the virtually unheeded fishing, and believe it or not toxins from people cleaning their boats on the Island, the reef has been under steady attack. There is another connection I’ll be trying to make.

I’ve contacted the group “Island Conservation” that works out of the marine labs here in Santa Cruz, CA and have offered to gather data while I’m on the Island. Island Conservation has suggested that I research the magnitude of the effect invasive species like rats have had on the Island.

There is a connection which will be very difficult to make photographically, between the rats with their diet of seabird eggs, and the fertilization of the reef by seabird droppings.
The rats eat the eggs and lessen the number of seabirds, and the reef gets less fertilization. Over time, the effects can be catastrophic.

This expedition is another example of using photography to back up the scientific data which in the end will create a greater conservation effort for an area that is mostly ignored.

I will be blogging from the Island, and hope to upload at least a few photographs every few days.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Power of Photography

This is a transcript of a lecture I gave at the National Geographic Society for their Explorers Symposium.

It certainly is an honor to be asked to speak about photography and the Image at National Geographic, especially while surrounded by people who I have considered mentors who are in the audience right as I speak.

There is a certain lineage in photography, all photographers have photographers that we look up to, or try to emulate, and understanding this lineage is also to understand the respect that those pioneers of photography deserve. They have broken a trail for the rest of us to follow.

Photographs are a way to break free of the barriers that we have in language, and we use them when words simply cannot convey our thoughts, Ideas, or the events which can define us.

Seeing the images that Nick Nichols took during Mike Fay’s mega transect not only stirs a somewhat jealous craving for adventure in me, it has also become the standard that I hope to achieve at some point in my own life and career. Seeing what they have accomplished with those images! Those photographs where used to persuade the president of Gabon to set aside 11% of the area of his country and to create 13 brand new National parks. This land could otherwise have been lost to logging and poaching.

In this instance however, photographs have captured more than just a moment in time, they have captured a part of our world and preserved it for future generations to admire, and someday visit for themselves.

Photography when used this way is no longer just a way to hold on to a memory, like the photos we take of friends and parties and children before they grow up, but a tool that we can use to accomplish our goals, goals like conservation, exploration, and education.

I can’t say that my photography has had the effect that Nick Nichols has yet, but in the expeditions that I have done for National Geographic, Just the potential that it could create change is constantly pushing me to find and capture that perfect moment that could sum up our cause in one image. One image that not just captures a single moment, but has compressed both the adventure and the cause into one definable image.

I’m sure we all have photographs that have been etched into our memories. Images that we’ll never forget. Either for tragic reasons, reasons of hope, or others because they changed our view of what is possible.

My first expedition for National Geographic was a huge learning experience for me. I was given a young explorers grant and sent on my way to document shark poaching on Cocos Island. Cocos is an Island 300 miles off of Costa Rica where the major oceanic conservation issues have all been condensed into one small marine reserve. I can’t say I wasn’t quite intimidated by the task at hand, which was to document and expose the Illegal poaching of sharks and other endangered species which on Cocos Island is a daily occurrence.

Cocos Island is one of the densest shark populations on the planet. Schools consisting of hundreds of hammerhead shark congregate on the various seamounts that surround Cocos, and smaller fish abound because of the Nutrient rich deep-water currents which are forced upward along the steep sides of Cocos Island. It appears to be one of the last strongholds that nature has in the ocean, but many of the important species that you see in Cocos Island are pelagic species, so they use Cocos like a waypoint on their migrations through the pacific.

The fishermen know this, and even though the waters are protected, they travel from all over the world to fill their holds with everything from tuna, to thousands of shark fins to be sold in Fish Markets like this one in Hong Kong. It’s easy to see why people will travel so far for shark fins, they sell for hundred of dollars a pound, and the more rare the shark, the higher the price. When you think of what a few thousand pounds of shark fins will sell for compared to the drastically cheaper meat, you can see why a fisherman will take their chances with the coast guard, and become poachers.

For every single poacher we caught in our patrols of the Island, at least 20 went unnoticed and unimpeded. Sometimes the boats were too big for us to run down in our little patrol boats, and other times the culprit happened to be the father in law of the captain of our patrol boat.

When the boats saw us coming, they would ditch their long lines which were miles long, with hooks placed every 50 feet or so, and we would return to pull the lines out by hand, freeing whatever was hooked. Every day, we would pull between 16 and 20 miles of line out of the water, more than enough to completely wrap around the island.

While I was out there, I was reminded of something that Wade Davis told me before I left. He said, “These things have a way of becoming much bigger than you originally planned.” He told me I was going to have to decide wether I would stick with the original focussed project, or if I would branch out and try to cover all of the issues which would inevitably come out of my research.

Thanks to Wade I didn’t lose my mind, and decided to focus on the issue of shark poaching and finning, using it as a metaphor for the rest of the ways we have been mistreating the ocean. I didn’t need photos of the massive Japanese tuna boats, which occasionally stop by Cocos Island, or the government officials that had been paid off to ignore certain boats, though I certainly tried. I just needed one picture that would show the inhumanity of it all. Just one picture to inspire those people who are actually in a position to make a difference. I know very well that I’m not going to sit down with the president of Costa Rica and discuss a plan I have to save the ocean, I’ll leave that to those more knowledgeable and better connected. But perhaps it will be my photography that will inspire them to do so.

The Cocos Island expedition led to my getting invited to join the legendary arctic explorer Will Steger on an expedition to document the effects of global warming in the high arctic. Another daunting task as far as photography goes. How do we make people care about global warming, or global weirding as I’ve heard it called, when the affects aren’t in our back yard yet? The Arctic seems like such an uninviting place, and people tend to have a difficult time visualizing it as a resource or even an heirloom worth preserving. What we need to change before we can change the world, is peoples perspective.

Will taught me a lot about how we can affect people’s perspective by bringing them with us to the arctic through our stories, and the photographs we posted along the way. While on the expedition we could only attach small images to our blog posts which we sent out via satellite uplink, like Toby is doing in this photo. Those pictures reached thousands of school children and unknown numbers of other people interested in following the teams adventures. On days when we saw wildlife, the followers got to see what we saw. When we finally had encounters with Wolves, after seeing tracks and keeping our eyes peeled for weeks, the followers got to share in our excitement.

This kind of use of photography while on an expedition isn’t new, but it is rare, and the
ability of a daily photograph to keep thousands of peoples interest tuned to our cause made it an invaluable part of our expedition, and something that I plan on implementing in my future expeditions. It humanizes the explorer, and gives people a personal experience. It allows people to imagine themselves as being a part of the expedition.

This is where I think photography really shines. A good photograph is not just one that shows a place, but something that can show people how we see the world, essentially it’s like looking through the eyes of the photographer, and seeing their vision. Really we all see things in our own way, with our culture, our experiences and our perspective shaping how we look at our surroundings. That’s why I love using it, it’s a way to show people what the world looks like to me.

There’s a drive inside of most of the people in this room to make a difference, and we each do it in our individual ways, some through scientific research, others through writing or film. My medium is photography. I can’t say that my photos have changed the world yet, but I can say that they have inspired some people to make changes in their own lives or to take up a new cause, and I consider this a good start. We’ve been educated our whole lives about global issues which need addressing, but to get people to stand up and take charge it takes inspiration.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Part 1 - Finding Joy in the Natural World

There are tourists and then there are travelers, and travelers know the feeling that no mater what adventure we go on, when it’s over there is a void left inside, a void we don’t know how to fill because we don’t know what it is that we are missing. Travelers are searchers, and again, we aren’t even sure what it is were searching for. It could perhaps be described by some as finding oneself, but the problem with finding oneself in travel, is that some day, when the journey has ended the void returns.

Sitting in their office in the city, whatever that office may consist of be it an art studio, or a call center, the void doesn’t disappear, it just slowly starts to get lost, other more pressing issues begin to cover it, and our lives grow around it until it’s all but gone, until it is uncovered with the next journey that is.

My journeys have always been punctuated with moments of insight which seem to fill that void, they come with a certain silent knowledge, even trying to understand it or describe it just makes things more hazy. I have found though, that these moments come most when I am living closest with the land.

In my short 25 years on the earth I can truly look back with wonder at the many lives that I feel I’ve lived, and the many persons that I feel I’ve become. I’ve been privileged enough in my time to see the natural world in what is now its closest to it’s natural state on a few powerful occasions.

Swimming with a few hundred hammerhead sharks 300 miles off of the cost of the mainland of Costa Rica showed me the oceans power, paddling out into waves, far to big for me to surf at my skill level just to sit and feel the oceans motion and behold the power up close and entirely submerge my senses in it. As well as traveling through the arctic on a two month dogsledding expedition with other like minded explorers, seeing a place where with all of the fury of nature, the bitter cold, the long stretches with no life in site, man existed, and in that world, he led a comfortable and happy life. We can learn to survive anywhere, nomads ride on camel trains through the African Sahara, and Hadzabe bushmen have lived side by side with some of the most feared predators of the african planes for over 60,000 years.

When I’m in these places I always try to take a moment, and close my eyes. I sit and listen to every sound that I can hear, or if I’m lucky enough I listen to the silence. Then I take in every smell, and even the temperature of the air or water as it flows across my skin. Only when these are committed to memory will I open my eyes, and look at the world anew, as if it’s the first time. These places are so well committed to memory that I can recall them any time or any place. I can’t imagine doing that in a city.

These places make me happy. Not just in a passing curiosity sort of way, but truly happy. So I ask, why not stay? Why not see the joy of the Inuit or the Hadzabe Bushmen, and learn to become one with the land that our race has so terribly tried to get away from? I hope that in doing this, I can show the joy of a simple life, filled to the brim with just surviving, and that in doing so, I can inspire people to rediscover the natural world, the world that we were born for.