15 March 2010

Michael J. Fox and the magical sea turtle

Several years ago I was awake in a Mexico City hotel room, in town for some official meetings regarding sea turtles. Couldn't sleep. Turned on the news. On CNN Larry King was interviewing Michael J. Fox who had announced an abrupt career change, related to the disclosure that he suffered from Parkinson's disease. Just as I tuned in, he began to tell a gripping story about following a sea turtle in the ocean, and how while under the sea turtle's spell he'd had the breakthrough. Best that I let him tell the story in his own words, as it appears in his book "Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist":

"My decision to leave Spin City was the right call at the right time.

By then, making a decision about what to commit my time and energy to came down to how I felt about something as opposed to what I thought about it. Certainly, my decision to retire from Spin City in the spring of 2000, effective at the end of the fourth season, was all "feel."

The decision happened late in the afternoon on the last day of the twentieth century. My family and I were snorkeling in the pristine waters of St. John's in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We'd been visiting this beach for years, and had never seen a sea turtle. Having finally spotted one gliding through the sea grass just inside the coral reef, I swam slowly behind it, keeping a respectful distance. When I finally emerged from the water, I kicked off my flippers, walked over to where Tracy was toweling off the kids, grabbed a towel for myself, and informed her that I was leaving the show. It may have been a bone-deep exhaustion from battling symptoms every day just to do my job, or maybe it was just the sublime indifference of that turtle, but a switch had flipped, and depending on how I chose to accept it, a light either just turned on or just turned off. If the perfunctory nature of my announcement startled Tracy, she covered it well. Certainly it was her moment to fill. She could have laughed it off like a weak throwaway joke or just pretended to ignore it, tacitly offering me the space to reconsider. Or she could have said, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" After all, what I was so casually proposing would bring about sweeping changes in each of our lives, as well as the kids'. I didn't even mention the turtle, fearing that she would think I was only consulting her for a second opinion. Whatever rough patches there had been in our marriage had usually arisen when one of us—okay, me—acted unilaterally. Bottom line, she could have reacted in any of a number of ways. But what she did was look me in the eye, utter a single word, "Good," and pull me into a wet, sandy embrace.

For the few remaining days of the vacation, we didn't talk about it much. If I was waiting for her to talk me out of it, that wasn't happening.

But could the break really have been that simple, that clean? This was a momentous decision, easily one of the most important in my life, and I was just blurting it out.

Well, yes—in a sense. Never once after my encounter with the sea turtle have I wavered in my conviction that it was the right thing for me to do and the right time for me to do it. But it was hard too. Not a hard decision to make, but a hard decision to havemade. As with any turning point or instance when a new road is chosen and old one forsaken, there are consequences. Here it was, New Year's Eve, the cusp of not only a new year, but a new millennium, and my resolution was to leave behind everything that I had resolved to achieve, acquire, and accumulate over the previous twenty years. I knew I wouldn't just be leaving the show—I would be putting aside my life as an actor. While I always had difficulty thinking of myself as an artist, I took pride in being a craftsman. I think I understood that even though, officially, my retirement was from Spin City and not my career as a whole, I couldn’t just tweak the schedule or the working conditions and expect to take on another leading role in a television series or film. This was it. I was essentially pulling the plug. Adios. Bye-bye."

There's something about about being with wild nature on its terms that is transformative, clarifying. Mr. Fox isn't the only person I know with a story like that, not by a long shot. And he's not even unique among celebrities with SEA TURTLE stories (Andre Benjamin and Charlize Theron both told me similar stories about their turtle connections).

The fact is that sea turtles will just do that to you, when you least expect it. They'll grab hold of your life and tug it in a different direction, just like that. I guess that's what happens when you're a 150 million year old species.

Thanks to everyone who tells their sea turtle stories, eloquently, fearlessly and publicly. People need to hear that protecting endangered species isn't only about their commercial value, their role in the ecosystem, their contribution to biodiversity or some potential medical discovery. It's all those things. And so very much more.

-Wallace J. Nichols

12 March 2010

Sign the Lights Out for Rush Pledge!

Rush Limbaugh Seriously Considering Founding Turtle Preservation Society

(Disclaimer: these quotes may be slightly out of context, a practice Limbaugh approves of but rarely warns listeners of when practiced on his show)

Radio star Rush Limbaugh is worried about sea turtles and is doing something about it. He and his neighbors in Florida know that just one light can kill thousands of sea turtles.

"Giant sea turtles lumber out of the ocean, they trundle up to the beach, they dig the nest, they lay the eggs, and they trundle back to the ocean", says Limbaugh. "And then some weeks later the hatchlings hatch and they burrow up out of the sand and they are supposed to go to the ocean." But, says Limbaugh, "lights on the beach distract the hatchlings and cause them not to go to the ocean but inland. So, those of us who live on the beach have to turn the lights off."

During the sea turtle nesting season female sea turtles crawl on to beachs around the world to lay eggs. When they are finished they used light reflected off of the water to find their way back to the ocean. When the baby sea turtles emerge from the nest about 60 days later they also use the reflected light to find their way to the ocean for the first time.

As we develop coastal communities, building beach houses, shopping centers and high rise hotels and apartment buildings, we are splashing more light on to these sea turtle nesting beaches. Unfortunately these lights are coming from the wrong direction and can cause sea turtles to follow the wrong light source, becoming disoriented, and end up on a roadway, in a pool, an easy snack for a racoon or cat, or simply get lost and bake in the morning sun.

For this reason, many coastal communities have "lights out" regulations during sea turtle nesting season. These regulations often require home and business owners to take modest steps to install turtle-friendly lights, draw curtains, or turn lights out after dark.

One light in the wrong place can disorient nesting female sea turtles and hundreds or thousands of their hatchlings.

Rush even says he is "seriously considering founding the forthcoming Turtle Preservation Society of Palm Beach".

Take the "Lights Out for Limbaugh" pledge!

Thanks for your support, Rush!

M. Coyne, Seaturtle.org
WJ Nichols, Co-Founder, SEE Turtles
(environmentalist wackos)

(Reposted from the following blogs:

Beach Lighting Tips

Reposition or shield necessary lights so they are not visible from the beach.
Put lights on a timer or motion sensor.
Replace current fixtures with "turtle-friendly" fixtures.
Reduce wattage of outdoor lighting.
Turn off lights in rooms that are not being used.
Relocate movable lights away from windows.
Keep curtains or blinds closed after 9 p.m.
Apply window tinting.

09 March 2010

On our complicated relationship with marine mammals

An explosion of attention around how we interact with marine mammals is forcing us off topic today. Whales, seals, and dolphins have long been looked at solely as resources by humans, for food, fur, entertainment, and scientific research, among others. As with other many (but not all) species, as humans learn about how these creatures interact with their environment (and the value that provides) and our lifestyles become less dependent on their use, our collective attitude often shifts from exploitation to protection.

At SEE Turtles, we've seen this shift happen before our eyes, as communities shift their economies to benefit from conservation. Watching my daughter interact with a friendly gray whale in Baja recently has made this relationship more visceral than ever.

In many cases however, these competing views collide, sometimes violently, with the animals literally caught in the middle. Here's a wrap-up of recent developments:

  • The Cove wins best documentary but Oscars producers, averse to anything controversial, quickly shifts away as Ric O'Barry holds up a sign saying "Text Dolphin to 44144". A couple of interesting post-scripts: The makers of the movie apparently broke up an illegal whale smuggling operation at a restaurant in California. They are also planning a tv-version of the movie for Animal Planet.
  • RadioLab, an extremely entertaining radio production company affiliated with NPR, has a great podcast highlighting two fascinating stories: divers freeing a whale caught in fishing gear and a leopard seal attempting to feed penguins to a photographer. Click here to find the podcast, look on the right side for one titled "Animal Minds".
  • Here in our back yard in Oregon, the now annual euthanizing of sea lions for doing what comes naturally (eating fish) has begun anew. Federal agents say they are eating too much salmon (whereas the giant dams and fishing boats are "off the hook".
  • An orca at SeaWorld recently killed a trainer, dragging her underwater and drowning her. Apparently bowing to public pressure, the company is now reconsidering using this orca in its shows though has stopped short of reconsidering the use of these animals for entertainment.
  • Finally, Canadian politicians have adopted Japan's combative attitude towards international criticism over the cruelty of the harp seal "hunt". The normally polite Canadians (perhaps emboldened by their hockey teams gold medal?) will be serving seal in Parliament to protest the European Union's ban on seal products.

06 March 2010

Grupo Tortuguero's Baja Murals Help Save Sea Turtles

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Our Ocean Backyard, by Dan Haifley


Posted: 03/06/2010 01:30:05 AM PST

Sometimes life does imitate art. Take, for example, Mexico's Baja California peninsula, which hosts a series of murals on the walls of restaurants, schools and gas stations.

The subject of those murals is a familiar and revered one to peninsula residents -- sea turtles. A recent study indicates that this public art has had a profound impact on attitudes and behaviors toward the marine environment.

The murals include images of turtles recycling plastics or feeding on pelagic red crabs; or local residents releasing Adelita, equipped with a transmitter to follow her swim from Mexico towards Japan several years ago. These murals are billboards marking the start of turtle highway -- their migratory route across the Pacific. In my next column, I'll examine an extraordinary effort at the other end of the migratory route -- near Santa Cruz's sister city in Japan.

While turtle images appear on some of Baja's walls, their real counterparts move through nearby waters where they breed -- and are still hunted, which is why they have become a symbol of Baja's growing marine protection movement.

Tufts University student Alyssa Irizarry conducted research on what impact the murals had on residents' views about and behaviors toward the environment. The award-winning study broke new academic ground and its conclusions provided positive feedback to Mexico's conservation movement for its education work.

Mexico has a history of murals as social commentary -- an example is Diego Rivera's celebrated work. Irizarry's study found that murals can be a powerful tool for conservation as they have been used in social and political commentary.

Ever since Spanish colonization, turtle meat has been a desired food item in Mexico. During most of the 20th century, turtles were commercially harvested in Baja for both the domestic and international market. As a result Mexico's sea turtle population nearly collapsed in the 1980s.

Much of Baja's economy, which is centered on fishing and tourism, depends on the ocean. A prohibition was placed on turtle hunting in Mexico in the 1990s, but their consumption is still an important cultural tradition in some areas. Despite this, Irizarry's study found a trend away from the consumption of sea turtles and toward a desire to protect them.

Irizarry's study dovetails with the work of Grupo Tortuguero, formed in 1999 to protect Baja's marine resources. California's Dr. Wallace J. Nichols often cites her research in his work with the organization. "Can murals save sea turtles and the marine environment?" he asked recently. "The answer is yes, and the conclusion of this study is: keep going."

Irizarry conducted surveys which showed that the murals are effective in developing environmental awareness: "It is unknown whether or not the actions are realized, but sea turtle murals can provide the motivation for community discussion and participation in turtle conservation," she says.

Youth in Baja schools and adults each responded to Irizarry's surveys that their attitudes and actions towards the environment were affected by more than just their initial attraction to the murals. She concludes that knowledge of sea turtles by school aged youth resulted from environmental education, and that viewing the murals afterwards served to reinforce that knowledge.

Dan Haifley is executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached atdhaifley@oneillseaodyssey.org.