GYRE Expedition – Day 5- Bearing Witness; Witnessing Bears. Act 1 (Wednesday, June 12)

June 25th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/14/2013:…nesday-june-12/

In the “morning” of the never-ending daylight, as the sun has swung round to the east and climbs the sky once more, we awaken in our windowless cabins. We’ve spent the short night at anchor in Hallo Bay. We head shoreward, trying to beat a dropping tide.

Checking in With Mom Photo: Carl Safina

Checking in With Mom
Photo: Carl Safina

We partially succeed. Enough of the half-mile mudflat is already exposed that we have to get out of the skiff and walk a hundred yards, splashing our way ashore. We will stay through the low tide, then get picked up when the water returns. This day will take form around the rhythms of nature.

Gulls calling across glass-still water sound like morning.

Coming to Share our Logs Photo: Carl Safina

Coming to Share our Logs
Photo: Carl Safina

We walk off the beach to scan the picture-perfect meadows, set by snowy peaks and sheer rock palisades. In the distance, a brown bear is grazing on sedges. Mark Dion and I decide to investigate some bird songs in nearby alders. We pick up a Wilson’s Warbler (yellow with a black cap), a Yellow-crowned Sparrow (black head with a yellow cap), a Varied Thrush (like a Robin painted by a child), and two regular American Robins, fighting. Such is life.

The bear walks onto the shore, does little, and dollies back to the sedge. That’s when we notice that about a mile away there’s a bear with two cubs digging clams on the newly exposed, blue-shimmering flat. We start off in that direction. From behind a rock bluff that meets the beach, a lanky, leggy young bear, about two years old, gets a surprise by meeting us. It hurries out to the flat where it can keep an eye on things. It seems nervous. There’s a big bear—a male—in the willows atop the bluff. We continue toward the clammer-bears. Eventually, though she remains several hundred yards away, my legs and my binoculars bring her close enough for a decent look.

Her head, blond, looks enormous, with a crease along the crest of her crown. A big shovel of a head, like an overturned spade. She weighs a few hundred pounds. The bears here are among the world’s biggest Brown Bears—same as Grizzlies. Males here weight about 900 to 1,000 pounds.

Her little cubs are the size of just her head. With each clam, they frequently surround her muzzle, close by her lips. She isn’t just randomly digging; she’s sniffing and snuffling, perhaps even listening for a clam’s withdrawal as she pads and paws along. She seems to dig in specific places as though she has detected a certain clam. She rakes into the flat with her pitchfork claws, frequently finding success. She lifts her head and a clam, already extracted from its shell somehow, hangs momentarily before she slurps it. She seems to leave some for her cubs, who lag a few paces behind, eating, before hurrying to catch up.

Clamming Around Photo: Carl Safina

Clamming Around
Photo: Carl Safina

After a long time, we leave her and head back in the direction we came from. That lanky juvenile bear is sleeping on the flat. It wakes and moves off. There’s still a male up on the bluff above us, not far. As the lanky juvenile moves farther out on the flat, it stumbles across a big flounder, and its harried demeanor acquires a new saunter; it seems quite pleased.

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GYRE Expedition, Day 4 – Landing in Hallo Bay (Tuesday, June 11)

June 25th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, For the Birds, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:…uesday-june-11/

Landing Craft in Hallo Bay Photo: Carl Safina

Landing Craft in Hallo Bay
Photo: Carl Safina

We spent several morning hours steaming west across Shelikof Strait to Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park, and landed the skiff on a rocky ledge at one end of a long bite of black beach backed spectacularly by the snow-peaked Alaska Range and Hallo Glacier. The highest peaks, piled in snows, leap from sea level to 7,000 feet in a single bound. The dune is piled deep in drifted logs and backed by meadows fed by the Ninagiak River, Hook Creek, Hallo Creek, and various unnamed streams that in lesser regions would be rivers of note, but here in this enormous landscape are mere anonymous givers of waters and bringers of salmon and quenchers of bears.

Author Track and Bear Track Photo: Carl Safina

Author Track and Bear Track
Photo: Carl Safina

Trash Time Photo: Carl Safina

Trash Time
Photo: Carl Safina

On the 5-mile beach, bear tracks braid with the tracks of wolves. And the tracks of rangers such as Carissa Turner and her colleagues, who await us on the beach along with several piles of collected washed-up trash and junk totaling fully four thousand pounds. It’s taken half a dozen rangers a week—camped here the whole while—to collect it.

“It was hard—and fun,” says Carissa, who is the sort of person who is always smiling. We will take all 2 tons of it.

Park superintendent Diane Chung welcomes us officially to this 5-million-acre piece of public real estate. Her job is to lovingly care for it on behalf of us all. In some ways, the United States remains a great nation, and, arguably, our national parks are the thing that best shows our best side.

Our skiff and inflatable work down the beach as we walk to each pile of huge trash. We load bags and giant buoys and rope piles onto the mobile landing craft. The small craft take them to our mothership.

Why remove trash from remote beaches? That question again.

Trash Photo: Carl Safina

Photo: Carl Safina

“This is a national park, a public wilderness, and garbage really detracts from visitor experience,” offers ranger Tahzay Jones. “Guides have told me they’ve had people cancel reservations when they heard there was a lot of trash.”

Three seals pop their heads as we talk on the bank of a stream mouth. They’re looking for the first salmon. This might be our “property,” but it’s their necessary place.

This place was hit by oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez more than two decades ago. Under some of the logs, you can still smell oil. If you poke in some places—you can find oil itself. Still.

Four of the park’s 2,200 grizzly bears are in the meadow, munching sedges. Two walk to the shore about half a mile from us, and lie down on the damp sand. A bald eagle helicopters in slow motion to the water’s surface, rises astonishingly with a fish, and flies determinedly into a thicket. Right on its tail is another eagle who dives into the thicket too, and they tussle for possession of the fish behind a screen of brush.

We’ve been here for one hour.

The beach looks great now. We thank the rangers.

“Thank you for taking it all away,” replies Jones. “This is the public’s land, and having trash on it lowers the value of public property—your property, our property.”

I pause on the idea of “away.” We have it. Now it has to go somewhere else.


More Trash Photo: Carl Safina

More Trash
Photo: Carl Safina



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GYRE Expedition, Day 3- Late Afternoon (Monday, June 10)

June 24th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on  National Geographic 6/11/2013:…late-afternoon/

ODILE’s Magic Desktop Lab -

Odile Madden and Carl Safina Photo: Kip Evans

Odile Madden and Carl Safina
Photo: Kip Evans

Odile Madden has brought two amazing pieces of equipment from the Smithsonian. One looks like a microscope stand without the microscope. The other looks like a little hand-held vacuum cleaner. Both fit on a desktop, and they’re incredible. The first shoots laser beams and the second generates x-rays. What you do is, you put a little piece of material—in our case, plastic from the beaches—on each of these machines, and they shoot lasers and x-rays at the material, then analyze the wavelengths that return. The first device tells you what compounds are in it while the second tells you which chemical elements are present. One of her main findings so far is that the pieces of netting and bottle caps and rubber tubes and other things she’s looked at have all been non-toxic. That’s interesting. It’s part of how inert and nearly eternal many plastics are; they react with so few things. So if you ate this stuff, it wouldn’t poison you. But it can still break into sharp shards or block stomachs or intestines. I’ve seen dead seabirds who were packed with plastic trash, and dead turtles whose intestines were completely blocked by materials their bodies could not break down.
So another thing the machines show is that, Odile says, “You can’t really sort plastics just by eye and know what they are.”

DAY 3 Monday late afternoon

We motored west and south around Shuyak Island and into Shelikof Strait, steaming toward Afognak Island. Almost no one lives on Afognak. But Shelikof, where the sea pours at high velocity through this funneling strait, is densely populated.

Humpback Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Humpback Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

For the better part of an hour, humpback whales were always in sight, smoking their peace pipes against the ever-dreamlike Mt. Douglas. Thousands of birds—Northern Fulmars, Tufted Puffins, Marbled Murrelets, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes—crisscrossed the near and far sea-surface distances. Occasionally one of the whales detonated a series of breaches.

A pod of Dall’s Porpoises streaked by, and a family of far-off Killer Whales hoisted their black pirate flags, making me feel that a lone sea otter we passed in deep water looked awfully vulnerable. For a few minutes we stopped, and found ourselves approached by an adult whale and a half-grown juvenile, closely enough that we easily heard the roaring rumble of their immense breathing.

Humpback Tail - slapping Photo: Carl Safina

Humpback Tail – slapping
Photo: Carl Safina

Andy teared up. “I got a bit choked,” he said in his British accent by way of explanation. “That connection you feel. But at the same time, you know they don’t feel it; yet they came for a close look, didn’t they?”

Andy Hughes Photo: Carl Safina

Andy Hughes
Photo: Carl Safina

They show that the world is not just for us, we agreed. That’s the thing here, and you feel.
Once, the whole world was this full of life. Alaska remains, for now, quite possibly the last best place.

Seabirds and a Whale Explosion Photo: Carl Safina

Seabirds and a Whale Explosion
Photo: Carl Safina

Just off Afognak and its virgin spruce forests, we headed into a place called Blue Fox Bay at Hogg Island, where Colleen Rankin and Jerry Sparrow have lived for more than 20 years. They established their homestead around an old barn that had been used for salting herring in the days before refrigeration. They’ve built an amazing home and life. Ever have squirrels in your attic? They’ve had bears. Their nearest neighbors live 5 miles away; the nearest family, 40 miles. Need to get to a store? That’d be 60 air miles to Kodiak, 80 miles by boat.

Into this isolation: trash by the ton. It wasn’t what they were gunning for when they set their sights on a wilderness life.
Colleen says there are many days when she’d rather go for a walk or take the boat to check whether the red salmon are running, “But if it’s nice weather, I need to get to some of those beaches and get ‘em cleaned.”

Garbage has brought a new dimension to her wild, and she answers its call. Along this coast, much of the shoreline is too rugged to collect flotsam and jetsam, but there are about 12 miles of beaches that attract trash as well as Colleen and Jerry. And in those places, stuff really piles in. The trend, Colleen says, is toward more and more small debris, with a sharp increase in shoes.

Part of Colleen's Recent Collection Photo: Carl Safina

Part of Colleen’s Recent Collection
Photo: Carl Safina

Their homestead includes sheds filled with gigantic bags of trash and a fenced area also filled with bags of trash and piles of buoys and netting and barrels and barrels of recovered ropes.

“Rope is, to me, a beautiful thing,” she says. Look at how the strands of this one are twisted. And to think that somewhere there are people whose job is to make this; this is their livelihood.”

Colleen is an articulate, thoughtful woman. “The main thing plastic has done,” Colleen says, “is to make us live faster, to speed up our lives. And what do we do with that speed? Mainly, it seems, the speed makes us pay less and less attention to each other.”

Workshed Photo: Carl Safina

Photo: Carl Safina

We wander around, with their two dogs zooming around us and playing with a buoy, while we’re talking and looking at all the stuff she has collected. “Take anything you want,” Colleen tells us. One thing that catches my eye is an unusual barnacle in a bowl of shells. I covers most of my palm and has very thick sides. “That’s from a Humpback Whale; it’s a kind of barnacle that grows only on humpbacks.” It’s one tiny example of the many kinds of things a slower life can let you notice. “If you like it, I’d be honored if you’d keep it,” she offers.

Colleen and Jerry Photo: Carl Safina

Colleen and Jerry
Photo: Carl Safina


Thrilled, I thank her. With this memento, Colleen and Jerry and this day will always be with me. I will treasure it.

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GYRE Expedition, Day 3 (Monday, June 10)

June 23rd, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:…monday-june-10/

In late morning we head toward Wonder Bay on Shuyak Island. On the way we run across a huge, nearly blond Brown Bear foraging on the beach. The world’s largest Brown (Grizzly) Bears live in this area and nearby Kodiak. As we approach, it gets concerned enough to amble away, easily hopping over some heavy timber drifted ashore. As it tops the berm into tall grass, it spooks a deer that had no idea there was a bear coming its way.

Carl Safina at Wonder Bay Beach Photo: Kip Evans

Carl Safina at Wonder Bay Beach
Photo: Kip Evans

Ashore in Wonder Bay Photo: Carl Safina

Ashore in Wonder Bay
Photo: Carl Safina

Wonder Bay is a black gravel and rock beach, bookended by low rocky bluffs and topped by short spruces. There’s a lot of drifted wood here, but this beach isn’t too cluttered with trash. There’s netting, buoys, buckets, jugs. Several big styrofoam cylinders are sleeved in netting.

This is all adult trash. No toys, no dolls, no action figures. Half the trash tonnage here is fishing gear.

Mark, Karen, Josh - talking trash Photo: Carl Safina

Mark, Karen, Josh – talking trash
Photo: Carl Safina

Peter Murphy has his clipboard out. He and Dave Gaudet are categorizing and counting pieces of trash. In his years of trying to understand ocean trash, he’s learned that a lot of trash gets into the ocean; that we know it causes harm because we see animals tangled and killed, but that no one can say how much because many animals die without being counted; that it goes where it’s hard to remove but many groups are dedicated to trying to remove it, even in some hard-to-access places; and that the problem is greater than the resources available to deal with it.

A kingfisher rattles as an eagle passes overhead. From somewhere inland behind the trees, a loon calls.

A float plane approaches, lands in the bay, and taxis to shore. Out comes Andy Schroeder, a former marine and a former kayak guide whose organization Island Trails Network is organizing cleanups all over the Kodiak island group. He’s finding a trend to more foam, more consumer products, more stuff from Japan. I don’t hear the word “less” in his list of trends.

Andy has been organizing volunteers and fishermen to help remove ocean-going trash from the beaches. But it’s important to remember that once the trash comes off, it still has to go somewhere. Many landfills don’t want it, because their space is too limited as is. It has to be taken far away. It all costs more money to do.

Driftnet floats Photo: Carl Safina

Driftnet floats
Photo: Carl Safina

Ocean-roaming trash at Wonder Bay Photo: Carl Safina

Ocean-roaming trash at Wonder Bay
Photo: Carl Safina

Andy is looking for buyers. He says more than 70 percent of the debris could be recycled into other products. In a sense, that means that even this garbage is another wasted resource.




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GYRE Expedition, Day 2 – morning (Sunday, June 9)

June 22nd, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:…-sunday-june-9/

I wake to find us motoring off the Kenai Peninsula. We have passed the Chugash Islands, passed the Barren Islands.

We are headed south toward Shuyak, which looms large far ahead. Islands are so high here that some are visible from distances of up to 100 miles. Afognak rises behind Shuyak (it hides the next island, the legendary Kodiak, home of some of the world’s largest brown bears). To the west rises the awesome, awe-inspiring massif of Mt. Douglas, dreamily robed in gleaming pink-hued snows.

The waters here among these islands of drowned mountains roil with powerful currents and surface rips. Such enormously productive subsea contours bring hordes of seabirds and mammals. And we see them.

Netting on Shuyak Photo: Carl Safina

Netting on Shuyak
Photo: Carl Safina

Humpback and finback whales hunt along drop-offs  where drowned mountain shoulders slope to dizzying depths. They are looking for massive concentrations of herring and teeming swarms of tiny invertebrates totaling many tons.  Difficult to imagine.  But they’re here; we see the schools and the swarms on the sonar.

On the surface, we see whales blowing, the gusts of their breath rising like flags of truce, wafting away on the breeze like prayer in the air. Above the whales zoom gulls and fulmars and puffins.

People say no one comes here. These beings live here. They are who come here. They need this place. The place needs them. We need them. I certainly need them. They help make the world tolerable. They wage no wars, launch no theater of terror, don’t like to themselves. They show us how to be better humans.

For long minutes we dally as black-and-white Dall’s porpoises play on our bow, swift but surprisingly pudgy. They must eat well here.

On the vast shorelines, spruce trees intersperse with large open grassy areas. We get into the landing boat and head toward shore. Along the shores, huge fronds and floats of Bull Kelp form big mats that clog our outboard intakes, causing our engines to continually overheat. We keep stopping to clean them, then proceed.

The first cove has a smooth black sand beach and is loaded with drift logs. An eagle lifts from the shore before we land. Even as Bald Eagles go, Alaska’s are impressively large. Three black oyster catchers, coal black with crimson bills, call nervously at us, suggesting that they belong here but perhaps we don’t. The beach has taken the imprinted tracks of two fawns. The bear trail shows no bears. Just inland from the beach berm, ducks called Greater Scaup, their heads beautifully iridescent, are paired up on a small pond, the males pursuing and guarding females, the females acting coy but staying on the water, not flying away.

Bale of Packing Straps Photo: Carl Safina

Bale of Packing Straps
Photo: Carl Safina

There isn’t much trash, relatively speaking, but there is some trash just about everywhere your eye lands all along the beach. Pam Longobardi finds a bale of packing straps. A whole bale.  I once caught a blue shark that had swum through a packing strap. As it had grown, it’s flesh was bulging over the strap. For most sharks, getting caught isn’t much fun. For that one, my catching it was probably the best day of its life; we cut the strap and removed the hook and set the shark free.


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GYRE Expedition Day One – Afternoon (Saturday, June 8)

June 21st, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:…aturday-june-8/

A discussion: Why bother to clean beaches never visited by people? If it’s just an ugly mess, why not just leave it?

Answers vary, even among our group. “Seeing this offends my dignity,” says one colleague. “I am embarrassed as a human to see how much trash is here.” “We just don’t like it; that’s a good enough reason.” “We know it hurts and poisons and tangles some animals, even if we don’t know how to quantify the damage.”

The way I’ve been thinking of it recently is: we could have made a better deal with the world and with ourselves. We could have our civilization, with far less damage.

Containers for liquid soap carry lettering in English, in Korean, in Japanese.

We wouldn’t be discussing the rationale for cleanup if we happened to see a tangled seal today, or we were watching seabirds feeding plastic bits to chicks, many of whom will consequently die. I’ve seen those things. I quantify it this way: there’s too much of it.

Humans seldom come here. But there’s bear poop on the path.  And  tracks of a coyote or young wolf on the beach.  And  an eagle overhead. People seldom come here, but for all these non-humans, this is their home.

At the foot of the forest, among the drifted-in wood, Styrofoam is piled in little bits between the logs as if we’d had snow flurries.

Foam at Gore Point Photo: Carl Safina

Foam at Gore Point
Photo: Carl Safina

We stalk and pick along, beachcombers of common garbage. The artists regard the trash like discriminating consumers. Some prefer strongly defined objects such as small hard-plastic fishing floats and bottle caps; others like soft stuff like nets and rope. My artist companions carry trash back and forth like happy retriever pups, like satisfied packrats.

Like coals to Newcastle, they’ve brought plastic trash bags for picking up the plastic trash they fancy. Pallaster will be back in August to do a real cleanup; they do this annually. The first time they were here, a few years ago, the plastic trash was deep and driven far into the forest by high waters of winter storms. They hauled out many tons.

So why pick it up? It’s not human enough to just leave it. We’re better than this. That’s how I feel.

Bottle caps, spray can tops, cosmetics tubes, cigarette lighters. Mark has gathered several dozen of these. He lays them on the black sand grouped by color.

It strikes me as a bit odd that this counts as work for an adult. Any child could do this. But soon everyone has gathered around. We notice the writing on the caps, their products, country of origin. Concentrating these bits in this little pattern helps concentrate our attention on what’s here. He is helping all of us see, and the art is sparking ideas about using the Web to ask people internationally to help identify some of these products. That would draw more people into a much wider discussion. The scientists snap photos and note down some of the writing on the products. Mark is doing what artists should do; he’s getting our attention. Not everyone could do this.

Mark Dion Applies His Eyes Photo: Carl Safina

Mark Dion Applies His Eyes
Photo: Carl Safina

It’s actually hot, sunny, we all peel off layers. I remove my socks. Add sunblock to my arms. We’ve brought water. It’s all in little travel-bottles. The bottles are made of plastic. Mine advertizes an oil company.

I take a sip.


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GYRE Expedition Day One – Morning (Saturday, June 8)

June 20th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, For the Birds, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic: 6/11/2013:…aturday-june-8/

Morning we wake in Tonsina Bay, one of many coves ringed by near-vertical forested slopes. The beauty takes my breath away. So do a half-dozen mountain goats, each with a small baby, above the treeline, above a grass slope, on a rocky precipice. How do mountain goats survive their lives? They choose the absolutely most difficult spots of all, and literally cling to life.

Carl Safina at Gore Point Photo: Kip Evans

Carl Safina at Gore Point
Photo: Kip Evans

Though the Bay is mirror perfect, word is that there’s a menacing surge running over at Gore Point, where we need to go to land. We know this because Chris Pallaster, executive director of an organization called the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has flown from Homer to Gore Point by float plane. By radio is suggesting a different strategy. Gore point extends out a bit like a curved catcher’s mitt, catching all kinds of stuff coming from the Gulf of Alaska. We planned to land in the palm, but the surge conditions dictate that we try to backhand our landing and walk across to the mitt side.

We pack for a day of it. The sky is cloudless but this is Alaska so I pack rain gear. I take my cameras, notebook, and pepper spray for bears. My joke is: why take just pepper spray for bears when we taste better with oregano and garlic. I’m not afraid of bears; I’m just respectful. They’re not usually dangerous. Trouble with bears is mainly about surprising them. They don’t like surprises. So if you keep talking, you’re safer than you are while you’re driving. We probably won’t see any here anyway.

Net, Ropes and Bottles Photo: Carl Safina

Net, Ropes and Bottles
Photo: Carl Safina

We land our skiff on the beach and are met by Pallaster, who has arrived with several co-workers. He tells us that in the last 20 years his organization has removed roughly a million pounds of trash from 1,200 miles of Alaskan beaches. Much of it comes from fishing boats who find it cheaper to dump old nets than pay for disposal, much comes from Asian consumers via Asian Rivers. Much comes from American consumers. Some comes from containers washed off ships in heavy weather. By one estimate, cargo ships lose 10,000 containers annually. The number is vigorously disputed-by companies owning cargo ships. Their spilled contents begin worldwide journeys. The smallest amount of trash that we find, but in the largest pieces, is from Fukushima, post-tsunami.

Pallaster says they categorize the trash into 140 categories. He says that someday they will have to assess blame, so the people whose plastic this is can be asked to pay. For instance, unclaimed deposits on bottles could go into a fund that pays for cleanup. Fishing boats might pay a deposit on their nets or even get a discount for a trade-in. Anyway, cleanup costs money. At present, donations and tax dollars are paying to clean these beaches.

We begin walking through a dark primeval forest of spruce. Captain Cook, I am told met people living here. They lived in round houses partly dug into the ground and then roofed and covered with sod. Rather amazingly, several pits of those homes remain here, covered now in mosses and fallen wood but clearly visible, just alongside the trail.

A hermit thrush calls.  Several crossbills show briefly and flit onward.

The beach at Gore Point is bookended by cliffs of black basalt, largely bare and partly forested. Distant peaks slumber under a light blanket of late-spring snows. It’s perhaps a mile long, black sand, and piled deep in heavy driftwood. You could walk the length of the beach entirely on drifted timber. The blue sea delivers a slow and rhythmic snore to the black shoreline. It’s a lovely sound, eternal and soothing.

Trash at Gore Point Photo: Carl Safina

Trash at Gore Point
Photo: Carl Safina

Among the logs, there’s foam, old driftnet floats and new fishing net floats that vary up to about bowling-ball size. There are bleach bottles, sports balls, and water bottles. Several fishing nets lie in tangles. Before they get to beaches, but even now, these are dangerous for wildlife.


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GYRE Expedition – Departure (Friday, June 7)

June 20th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, For the Birds, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:…-friday-june-7

From Seward, we left Resurrection Bay, past Rugged Island, and felt the full roll of an ocean swell addressing us broadside from the southeast, rolling us as we plowed forward.

Around us, some of the world’s most spectacular coast. Sheer shores spired by eagle-topped spruces rising to snowy peaks that gleamed in the afternoon. In the waters, clown-colored Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, the pretty little gulls called Black-footed Kittiwakes. A small pod of husky Dall’s Porpoises seemed to appreciate less than did we the small pod of enormous killer whales we passed. The male’s fin startling as the sudden sighting of a pirate flag in a telescope was so high it dropped my jaw. They fell behind in our wake.

Beaches Between Cliffs Photo: Carl Safina

Beaches Between Cliffs
Photo: Carl Safina

Overheard: “How many acres is Alaska?” That’s artists for you. If you superimpose Alaska on a map of the continental U.S., it’s panhandle touches Florida, the Aleutians reach California, and its mainland covers the map from Missouri to Minnesota, from Illinois to west Kansas. That’s how many acres.  Half a million square miles.

The whole shoreline is contoured like a jigsaw puzzle. There are almost no straight stretches. Everything that shows is the peaks of drowned mountains, and everything that meets the water are the corrugated shoulders and slopes of land forms brutalized by thousands of years of glaciers and earthquakes. Even without the cold, it’s rugged as hell.

There had been people here, somewhere, though it’s hard to imagine how or where they lived. They are called Alutiiq.

It’s easier to see how this coast, so incomprehensibly vast and forbidding, could isolate peoples who survived here-to the extent they did–using only stone-age technologies, living by spears and kayaks. Dark months of winters must have sat on their sparse villages like cast iron. Though I try, I cannot imagine.

One way to think of how these coasts look is that there are two kinds of shores here, vertical and beachy. Almost all the shore is vertical. Nothing collects along the narrow, rocky beach-strips of those vertical shores; anything that lands there gets scoured by winter storms. But at the heads of many coves are little beaches, and these funnel what floats. These scooped-out coves collect piles of logs and other driftwood, and the driftwood is colorfully hung with trash.

Fin Whales and Fulmar Photo: Carl Safina

Fin Whales and Fulmar
Photo: Carl Safina

Around 10 p.m. on our first evening we went into the Pye Islands. Two Humpback Whales stalked in and out of a deep, fjordlike cove, poking around for herring schools like cats hunting mice. We dropped anchor in a place called Morning Cove and spent the night aboard.

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A New Idea to Protect Wild Salmon

June 19th, 2013 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Salmon

Previously posted on Huffington Post 6/14/2013:

and National Geographic on 6/10/2013:…ct-wild-salmon/

A few years ago I visited Southeast Alaska and saw more salmon than I thought I’d ever see in my entire life. The question: will they be there for our next generation?

Southeast Alaska is one of the last places in the United States where wild salmon still thrive. A place where a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem churns out tens of millions of these fish every year, employing more than 7,300 people in fishing, processing and guiding jobs. A place where salmon underpin the culture and lifestyles of people with ancestral ties to the region dating back 10,000 years or more. It’s a cold and mossy rainforest of giant cedar, spruce and hemlock trees with nearly 18,000 miles of salmon-filled rivers.

Most of this place is designated the Tongass National Forest. This 17-million-acre forest covers most of Southeast Alaska and functions as a huge nursery for five species of wild Pacific salmon. At its most basic level, the Tongass is a salmon forest.

I and more than 230 other scientists will be calling on Congress to protect Tongass salmon. The vehicle is a proposal to Congress to help protect the 77 most high-value watersheds for salmon that remain open to development. These 77 watersheds comprise nearly 2 million rainforest acres. The new effort is called the Tongass 77.

Scientists, agency officials, fishermen and conservationists have determined that these are ”the best of the best” when it comes to producing salmon. These are high-yield waterways that year after year return high numbers of spawning salmon. They’re worth protecting.
By that I mean managing them for salmon production as priority number one. This doesn’t mean they’re locked up and nothing else can occur from a jobs perspective. Under this proposal, income-generating activities ranging from mining to hydropower can happen if they’re consistent with the top management goal of conserving the natural habitat for wild salmon.

Salmon Forest Photo: Amy Gulick

Salmon Forest
Photo: Amy Gulick

If Tongass salmon are so healthy and rich in number, why do they need protection measures like Tongass 77? The history of salmon in the rest of the Pacific Coast, and in so many other parts of the world, tells the story. In states south of Canada, like California, Oregon and Washington, Pacific salmon no longer spawn in nearly half of their original spawning areas. A toxic mix of habitat loss from urban sprawl, agricultural run-off, dams, logging, privatization, and other stamps of human behavior have decimated salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest.

Alaska, and specifically the Tongass which produces one-third of the state’s total salmon harvest, is the country’s last bastion of healthy salmon country. And even in the Last Frontier, a slew of threats loom over Tongass salmon, including land privatization proposals, logging, mineral development and climate change. The Tongass 77, if enacted by Congress, would help permanently protect at the watershed scale — meaning from ridge top to shoreline — a large block of what’s left of the country’s wild salmon habitat. It would help ensure the long-term viability of these fish.
The Tongass 77 is a pro-active conservation strategy that makes sense for Southeast Alaska. Google the words Tongass and American Salmon Forest to find out how to get involved. Or go to and sign on.

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GYRE Expedition All Aboard!

June 16th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Dolphins, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013:

All Aboard- Our expedition is called Gyre.

Our route is from Seward, Alaska west toward Kodiak, stopping at several places along the way, bearing witness, perhaps witnessing bears, and talking trash.

Our Boat, The Norseman Photo: Carl Safina

Our Boat, The Norseman
Photo: Carl Safina

It’s a uniquely creative approach to the issue of plastic garbage washing up on the world’s remotest beaches. We carry scientists and artists.

The expedition is the brainchild of the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum. We will create a museum exhibition that will spend a while in Anchorage, a while at the Smithsonian, and tour the U.S.

Our magic carpet, the Norseman, is a 130-foot workboat that caught crabs in the Bering Sea for 30 years before being renovated for research. Now, deadliest catch yields to deadliest trash.

Our crew is Captain Paul Tate, mate Dr. Cark Schoch, assisted by Melissa Knight and Nathaniel Charonneau, Aaron Stump is our chef. Our safety officer is John Maniscalco.
Our witnesses include about a dozen women and men, headed by project originator and expedition leader Howard Ferren of the Alaska Sealife Center. We are to witness and respond with our heads and our hearts, and so artists and documentarians complement scientists. Pam Longobardi is, in a way, the mother artist of this project, since she has been involved in the planning for several years. The other artists include Mark Dion from New York, Andy Hughes from the U. K., and Karen Larsen from Anchorage. The scientists include the Smithsonian’s Odile Madden, the Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation’s Dave Gaudet, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Peter Murphy, and The Ocean Conservancy’s Nick Mallos. Kate Schafer is our education specialist. Our videographer is JJ Kelly and our still photographer is Kip Evans. Dolan Dworak is doing social media from the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Howard Ferren and Pam Longobardi Photo: Carl Safina

Howard Ferren and Pam Longobardi
Photo: Carl Safina

I have somewhat mysteriously been designated “chief scientist.” It’s a designation that I like and appreciate. But it does not reflect my relative knowledge, either of the area or the subject of ocean trash and beach debris. Probably each of the other science persons aboard bring some deeper expertise.

I bring a deep ambivalence. I love this place for its raw, wild aspect and the exuberant life that inhabits it; for the fact that it retains every species that naturally survived to the human epoch. It has its wolves, its bears, its whales, sea otters and seals, birds by the millions, fish beyond counting.

Yes, it’s a magnet for floating garbage from distant coasts. And my ambivalence stems both from the facts that it is here fouling some of these shores and hurting some of these animals, and that it is the garbage-not the beauty, not the life-that has gathered us, has entangled our differing interests.

Are trash and debris the new sirens of the sea that draw us-almost against our will-to the most remote and rocky shores? I and each of us on this vessel found the call impossible to resist.
Yet the call is not a lovely one, and the glimpses we get are not of something ethereal and otherworldly but of us at our most un-thinking. It is our own ugliness that we come to witness. But that we have come, and that people do care, is also a reflection of human beauty.

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