Big Love: The emotional lives of elephants

May 6th, 2015 | 1 Comment
Elephants, Homepage, Travels

Alison, fifty-one years old, is right—there, in that clump of palms—see? And there is Agatha, forty-four years old. And this one coming closer now is Amelia, also forty-four. Amelia continues approaching until, rather alarmingly, she is looming so hugely in front of our vehicle that I reflexively lean inward. Cynthia Moss leans out and talks to her in soothing tones. Cynthia arrived in Kenya forty years ago, determined to learn the lives of elephants. The first elephant family she saw, she named the “AA” family, and she named one of those elephants Alison. And there she is. Right there, vacuuming up fallen palm fruits. Astonishing.

Click here to read the full piece originally published in Orion Magazine, May/June 2015.

Special thanks to the folks at Orion for letting us share this article for free. To access more content like this, kindly consider subscribing.

Photo by Wolf Ademeit

Photo by Wolf Ademeit

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A Sea in Flames

May 6th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Gulf of Mexico Oil Blow-Out, News, Pollution, Travels

Though a bit imprecise, the time, approximately 9:50 p.m. on April 20, 2010, marks the end of knowing much precisely. A floating machinery system roughly the size of a forty-story hotel has for months been drilling into the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Its creators have named the drilling rig “Deepwater Horizon.”

Oil giant BP has contracted Deepwater Horizon’s owner, Transocean, and various companies and crews to drill deep into the sea floor 40-odd miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The target has also been named: the Macondo formation. Giving it a name helps pull the target into our realm of understanding. But by doing so we risk failing to understand that it is a hot, highly pressurized layer of petroleum hydrocarbons—oil and methane—pent up and packed away undisturbed inside the earth for many millions of years.

Oil from the air near the bleeding well, June 2010.  Photo by Carl Safina.

Oil from the air near the bleeding well, June 2010. Photo by Carl Safina.

Click here to read the full blog originally published on, April 20, 2015.

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Lemurs of Madagascar

May 6th, 2015 | No Comments
Lindblad Expeditions Cruise, Travels

On board with Lindblad Expeditions Southern Africa and Indian Ocean tour.

I’d just arrived in Madagascar for the first time. I was with the foremost expert on the primates called lemurs, trying to pay attention. I had everything to learn. We’d just gotten there on the shipNational Geographic Orion, courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions.

As soon as we docked in Toliara, people in dugout canoes arrived at our ship seeking to sell us sea turtle shells for one dollar. You start to see right away that the problems are the usual: poverty, ignorance, the need to eat. (We soon met Dr. Garth Cripps who described the innovative programs of Blue Ventures, helping local people set up protected areas on depleted reefs and gain access to family planning.)

We were told that one dollar could buy us a sea turtle’s shell. Photo by Carl Safina

We were told that one dollar could buy us a sea turtle’s shell. Photo by Carl Safina

Click here to read the full blog originally published on, April 13, 2015.

In the Agulhas

May 6th, 2015 | No Comments
Dolphins, For the Birds, Lindblad Expeditions Cruise, Travels

March 27, 2015 – The Agulhas current flows down the east coast of Africa from the north. It’s described as “narrow, swift, and strong” on our briefing material aboard National Geographic Orion. As it reaches the southern tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas (Cape of Good Hope is not actually the continent’s southern tip), it recirculates. Thus a major source of the current is the current itself.

In May to July millions and millions of Southern African Pilchards (Sardinops sagax) come to spawn in northbound water, forming the famous Agulhas Current sardine run. Schools can each be five miles long, a mile wide, and a hundred feet deep.

A juvenile Cape Gannet streaks in among a group of Spinner Dolphins – Photo by Carl Safina

A juvenile Cape Gannet streaks in among a group of Spinner Dolphins – Photo by Carl Safina

Click here to read the full blog originally published on, March 30, 2015.

Great White Sharks of Gansbaai: No Hooking, No Handling, No Harm

May 6th, 2015 | No Comments
Lindblad Expeditions Cruise, Sharks, Travels

March 23, 2015 – As we began our cruise up the southeast coast of Africa aboard the shipNational Geographic Orion, we departed Cape Town, South Africa. Several of us spent the day on an outing with Marine Dynamics out of Gansbaai to see great white sharks near Dyer Island. We anchored in an easy swell, and weren’t there five minutes when the first of the day’s sharks showed up.

Click here to read the full blog originally published on, March 25, 2015.

Photo by Carl Safina

Photo by Carl Safina


Why U.S. East Coast Should Stay Off-Limits to Oil Drilling

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, For the Birds, Gulf of Mexico Oil Blow-Out, Homepage, News, Pollution, Sea Turtles, Sharks, Whales
A Shell oil platform launches off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. Photo by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg.

A Shell oil platform launches off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. Photo by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg.

When it comes to the Obama administration’s recent move to open portions of the Atlantic coast to oil exploration, I’m a bit out of synch with environmentalists who are worried about the big spill. They warn of another Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez-type fiasco coming to the Southeast. But to me, it’s just about the day-to-day business of chasing oil, the wrong-headedness of it all.

It’s not that I don’t have some personal history with the major oil calamities of recent decades; I do. In my early teens the first televised images of oil-coated birds during the 1969 blowout off Santa Barbara shocked me and the nation, inspiring the first Earth Day and propelling a burst of environmental laws. Twenty years later, at home working on a scientific paper, I heard the radio’s news of the Exxon Valdez’ rupture and of thousands of oiled birds and otters, and began sobbing at my desk. A decade later, I visited Cordova, Alaska, and saw how the pain and disruption from the spill had seeped into lives of the people there as thoroughly as the oil had seeped into shoreline sediments and the livers of waterfowl. And in 2010, I spent a lot of time along, on, and above the Gulf of Mexico while oil freely gushed from the hole that BP had made in our coastal soul. There was the failure of the ‘blowout preventer’ to prevent the blowout, the crazy “junk shot” attempt to jam golf balls and shredded tires down a gushing well against the force of the upward-shooting oil, the ghastly photo of the nearly unrecognizable brown pelican jacketed in crude as it died. My chronicle of that summer of anguish became the book A Sea in Flames.

Click here to read the full blog originally published in Yale Environment 360, February 23, 2015.

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Can a killer whale be a slave?

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Homepage, Whales

Sign our Avaaz petition: Let’s keep working to #FreeLolita!

Originally posted on CNN Opinion, February 4, 2015.

(CNN) – “Lolita’s story reminded me of my own,” says African-American actress and singer Robbyne Kaamil. “My own relatives, my family ancestors, were captured and forced into slavery.”

Captured in waters off Washington State in 1970, Lolita is an orca — a killer whale. Kaamil, who perceives clear parallels between Lolita’s life of captivity-for-profit and the human slave trade, was inspired to record “Let The Girl Go: Free Lolita,” a bold music video about Lolita, and a courageous interview on the parallels of captivity between human slaves and performing orcas.

Robbyne Kaamil

Robbyne Kaamil

Lolita is still living in Florida at the Miami Seaquarium. She’s been the focus of a concerted campaign to win her release. In January, Kaamil participated in a march in Miami that drew animpressive crowd estimated by the Miami Herald to be around 1,000 people.

Can a killer whale be a slave? Literally? “It’s important to understand how horrendous it is to steal a baby orca from her family, force her to perform, and hold her in the equivalent of a bath tank until she dies. It’s a crime,” Kaamil said.

Lolita has spent 44 years in a teacup. She is 20 feet long, living in a tank reportedly to be about 20 feet deep, 35 feet wide and 80 feet long. Free-living orcas usually travel 25 to 75 miles per day. Compared to say, 40 miles, 80 feet is about 1/2600th the size of an orca’s normal daily life.

Like a second lump of sugar, a whale named Hugo who had been captured from the same free-living whale community two years earlier, shared Lolita’s teacup for 10 years. Hugo died in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head into the wall of the pool. Did he commit suicide? Free-living orcas never do anything self-destructive. They have never even been seen fighting.

Consider Lolita’s isolation. At age 4, she was taken from her mother. Free-living orcas live their entire lives traveling with their mothers, siblings and children. Unlike any other known creature, unlike elephants and humans, orcas like Lolita never leave their birth family. Free-living orcas frequently live into their 50s or beyond (they can live up to a century). They often cooperate and help one another, and may perform midwife duties.

Forty-year veteran orca expert Ken Balcomb has told me that tooth marks on a recent healthy newborn suggest that another whale, likely its grandmother, assisted her daughter during a difficult birth by pulling the infant from her body.

Thousands of miles away, Lolita’s family has been without her. During these decades, the family desperately needed her. “The captures of young whales in the 1960s and ’70s really caused a long-term problem,” Balcomb told me. The so-called “resident” orca families travel the U.S. West Coast off Washington, Oregon and California hunting fish. Before the captures they totaled about 120 whales. The captures took them down to about 70. They managed to rebuild to 99 whales by the 1990s.

But when the whales removed as babies would have been the next maturing generation, rebuilding hit a wall: too few females. Forty years later, the population—around 80 whales—is losing one or two members a year. The whole U.S. resident population now has just two-dozen females of reproductive age. In some families, the only females are past reproductive age. Those families are doomed.

Lolita, who has never given birth, is now menopausal, her gifts to the future forever withheld by her denatured existence. By continuing to lure paying customers, Lolita continues to make money for her owners. Palace Entertainment, owner of the Miami Seaquarium, claims Lolita can no longer survive in the wild. But that’s not the proposal.

The proposal is to move her into a vastly larger open-water net-pen in her home waters of Washington State. There, she can be in vocal contact with her family. Depending on how that goes and whether after all this time there remains recognition, the possibility of full return to her family could be considered.

Lolita’s fish-hunting skills are by now somewhere between rusty and nonexistent, but free-living orcas routinely share food. Bottom line: What’s proposed for her is better than the situation she is in. Even death might seem preferable—as Lolita’s companion Hugo seemed to think.

“Most of us have a clear understanding about the cruelty of slavery. It is imperative to recognize the inhumanity of forcing any living being into captivity.” Kaamil said.

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A Recipe for Seafood Survival

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Homepage, Overfishing

Co-authored by Brett Jenks

You know that hunger and the oceans are on a collision course when your 89-year-old mother phones you — as Safina’s mom did this morning — and says, “Did you see the article saying that we’re driving seafood extinct? We’d better go get some oysters and some blackfish before they’re all gone!” The irony wasn’t entirely lost on her (she was laughing), but she wasn’t entirely kidding, either. “Get ’em while supplies last” is most people’s first response to scarcity. And when billions of people have the same first thought, disaster is right around the corner.

The United Nations estimates that three billion people rely on fish as an important source of protein, while about 65 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished. Worse, a new study in Science magazine concludes that humans have so profoundly depleted ocean life, we’re causing mass extinction in the sea. But that study also concludes that establishing protected areas could avert many sea-life extinctions.

Ocean fish depletion haunts the world’s coastal communities, where most people live. It’s as true of Jakarta as of Boston. But protecting specific areas — if done before collapse, and if the areas protected are sufficiently large — can allow fish populations to rebound. Fishing around those reserves can then ensure fish and food. Think of it simply: in order to have continued supply and demand, you need supply. You can’t just take from everywhere; you have to have some places reserved for production. It’s startling that with something as important as hunger, something so basic as food supply still isn’t universally understood.

Photo courtesy of Rare

Photo courtesy of Rare

Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 26, 2015.

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To Fight Disease, Protect the Ocean

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, Pollution, Sea Turtles, Sharks, Whales

By marine scientist and Safina Center Fellow Dr. Ellen Prager, Co-authored by Carl Safina

Why should we curb ocean pollution, stop overfishing, prevent invasive species and save coral reefs?

Because the next wonder drug in the battle against some of our most insidious diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, may be lurking just beneath the waves!

The ocean covers nearly three-quarters of our planet and provides billions of people with a critical source of protein along with hundreds of millions of jobs and billions of dollars in economic revenue. The ocean is part of the Earth’s life support system, producing oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide and heat. Simply put, our quality of life on the planet is inherently connected to the sea! And you’ve probably heard all of that before. Still not convinced?

Well, how about this: The ocean, in fact, may be the greatest reservoir of new, effective and as of yet, undiscovered pharmaceuticals. Already, there are eight approved drugs derived from marine chemicals that are being used to fight cancer, pain, viruses and inflammation. Another twelve compounds are in clinical trials with many more in the preclinical phase, these look to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s, viruses, asthma and to promote wound healing. And we’ve only explored some five percent of the ocean!


Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 9, 2015.

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Your Chance, Your Voice, On a Liquefied Gas Facility Off New York

March 10th, 2015 | No Comments
Climate Change, News, Pollution

The hearing is tonight, Wednesday. And there are other ways to comment.

The proposal is to create a liquefied natural gas facility 20 miles south of Jones Beach. It would be called “Port Ambrose.” Ships would bring super-chilled liquefied natural gas, which would be piped to shore. I use natural gas for heating and cooking. I also oppose this facility. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite; it makes me someone with a conscience who wants alternatives to fossil fuels rather than more excuses for more fossil fuels.

Do we really want to allow gas pipes all over the seafloor, locking us into more use of a dangerous fossil fuel and interfering with planning to develop wind turbines in the same region? I don’t. Neither does the NY Daily News, who came out against this plan.



Click here to read the full blog originally published in Huffington Post, January 7, 2015.