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October 15th, 2013 | 1 Comment
PBS Television Show: "Saving the Ocean"

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Killer Whales in Washington State: Serial Problems By Carl Safina

October 5th, 2013 | 5 Comments
Salmon, Whales

We were just chatting in Ken Balcomb’s kitchen when out of the computer speakers’ white-noise static came a single whistle that stopped all conversation. They were coming!

Moments later the kitchen was full of squeals, squeaks, whoops, buzzes—. At the windows with our binoculars, we confirmed that a familiar group of “resident” or fish-eating killer whales was now in view.

We got into the Center for Whale Research boat and headed out for a closer look, pausing off Pack Point as several killer whales were looking unusually active, arching their backs, diving steeply, seeming in a hurry about whatever had their attention below.

It’s one of the whales’ favorite local salmon-hunting spots. But all the real action was out of view below.

These are “residents,” the fish-eating kind.  Different from the other day’s mammal-eating “transients” and probably they’re different species. There are probably at least 5 species, maybe even 8 species, of killer whales in the world. Here off Washington State there are residents and transients, and in the North Pacific there are also “offshores” who seem to specialize on sharks and are also different genetically.

It’s amazing that we don’t even know how many species there are of such huge and recognizable creatures. But we do know how to threaten them.

Salmon depletion has really hurt the resident killer whales’ infant survival, and the 80 whales of the 3 fish-eating resident pods in this region are designated endangered. My host Ken Balcomb worries that the population may be doomed. After 40 years of work, he carries the burden of that worry. He has twice said to me that he wants to be positive but that the one thing that would help—which would be letting the salmon recover—isn’t being done and doesn’t look likely; the fishermen are too committed to squeezing what they can out of the fish and the agency people are too locked into process and relationships. There’s also too much logging, too many dams, pollutants—and Navy war games involving loud sonar and live bombs whose blasts have killed killer whales.

I saw photos of a 3-year-old female killer whale, L-112, a.k.a. Victoria—a “sweet little whale,” said Ken—who’d been a favorite of whale-watchers here, very playful and acrobatic. She was found dead, hemorrhages all over her head, earbones blown off their attachments, blood in her ear canals and eyes. The near-certain cause of death was a Navy bomb dropped—as part of a training exercise—right into the whales’ living room.

But I, too, want to be positive. Just across the strait, in Canada, the resident whales’ numbers are increasing a bit. That means there’s hope. But they do need abundant fish. Food is key. We have to leave enough. We can’t take it all. We need to let salmon recover. Then the whales can recover,  too. After all, when this place teemed with salmon, it also teemed with whales.

Male killer whales have big fins Photo: Carl-Safina

Male killer whales have big fins
Photo: Carl Safina

Female Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Female Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb Photo: Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

So from California right up through Alaska, where salmon-dependent killer whales roam, do what you can to ensure the future of abundant salmon. Oppose the salmon-snuffing Pebble Mine proposal in Alaska. And help fight back on Navy war games. Search for the keywords: fight pebble mine. And also search for: fight navy sonar.

You can also get informed by reading the government’s recovery plan <>, for the “resident” whales I was seeing.

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Kitchen Killer Whales By Carl Safina

October 3rd, 2013 | 3 Comments

I was just standing on researcher Ken Balcomb’s kitchen porch looking out at Haro Strait, from Washington toward Vancouver Island, Canada, watching killer whales going by.

Cool enough, but these were not the usual “residents” who hunt salmon. They were “transients;” mammal eaters. One way we knew: We’d been listening to the nearby hydrophones set up by (you can eavesdrop too, on the Web) but we heard nothing when we noticed the whales coming around the corner. The fish-eaters are chatterboxes, very vocal. The transients are silent stalkers, hunting with their sonar but being quiet about it, so they don’t give their location away to mammals they hunt.

Ken saw a seal pop its head up and go down. Ken said the seal wasn’t reacting evasively, adding, “reaction right now is crucial.”

Suddenly several male killer whales were surging through a spreading slick under and a couple of dipping gulls.

Then I saw one of the whales surface momentarily with a piece of the seal.

The 3 males that were in on that kill are about 27 feet long and weigh about 17,000 pounds. The seal they ate weighed about 250 pounds and was gone in under a minute.

The so-called transient, mammal-eating killer whales have been showing up increasingly in recent years. They continue to benefit from the increasing seal numbers following the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In such slow growing, long-lived creatures as killer whales, their recovery, following the lengthy recovery of the seals they hunt for food, is a decades-long proposition.

Ken Balcomb  Photo: Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

That’s the good news. The situation is more difficult for the fish-eating killer whales, whose food—salmon—have been severely depleted. The whales’ fate follows the fate of their food.

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Timber! (Rattlesnakes, That Is) By Carl Safina

October 1st, 2013 | 2 Comments

This weekend I got the opportunity to experience a wildlife phenomenon that’s rather far removed from the ocean and wildlife I usually study and write about. Turns out that my friend Andy bought 14 acres of land around the largest hibernation site for Timber Rattlesnakes that exists anywhere.

He did that quite on purpose. Why would anyone want a few green acres with about a thousand snakes whose Latin name is horridus? Three reasons: Because they belong there, they’re threatened in much of their range, and they need protection.

So where is this den, you’re asking? Well, I was asked not to say, for three reasons: because they’re threatened, they need protection, and there are too many people who would like to come and illegally take or kill the snakes.

The den is among some rocks, and at this time of year the snakes migrate—yes, migrate—to the den site, converging on it from some distance around. That means that if you are around the site, there’s a snake every few steps.

And that was a bit hairy. There were several of us, and only two of us (including me) wore any leg protection. It would have been pretty easy to step on one of these hard-to-see creatures. So we were very careful.

We watched some of them moving slowly through dry leaves, their flickering tongue picking up the scents of other snakes who’d preceded them.

And they were beautiful. Most were about three feet long. One was maybe four feet. A five foot Timber Rattler would be a monster-big one. They come in a yellowish and black forms, but even the yellowish ones have dark tails.

The snakes were mostly very docile. A couple decided to slowly move away. Most just stayed where they were. Confidence. None tried to bluff us or do anything aggressive. And in the main den opening I saw several snakes and human ashes. One man loved these snakes that much.

As you can imagine, though, most people are not kind to rattlesnakes. And while rattlesnakes are not particularly kind to people, people are by far the more aggressive of the two species. For a while, anyone killing a rattlesnake could get paid a “bounty.” Roads, habitat destruction, sheer hatred, and heavy pressure from collectors all take their toll. Their range has shrunk and many observers believe numbers at dens are down 50 to 80 percent in the last 40 years or so.

Until recently, nothing people did helped the snakes’ cause (which, like ours, is to stay alive as long as they can). Now they benefit from legal protection, from people like my friend, and from people who know how to keep a secret.

Further reading on the status of Timber Rattlers:

Yellow form has a black tail Photo: Carl Safina

Yellow form has a black tail
Photo: Carl Safina


Watch your step! Photo: Carl Safina

Watch your step!
Photo: Carl Safina

See it? It's right there!. Photo: Carl Safina

See it? It’s right there!.
Photo: Carl Safina

In the den; a snake-lover's ashes Photo: Carl Safina

In the den; a snake-lover’s ashes
Photo: Carl Safina

Getting-theres-half-the-fun-of-surviving-it. Photo: Carl Safina

Photo: Carl Safina

Black-and-tan-fantasy Photo: Carl Safina

Photo: Carl Safina

Yes, a telephoto lens! Photo: Carl Safina

Yes, a telephoto lens!
Photo: Carl Safina


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Gas Fracking: No Time For Nuance

August 12th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Climate Change, FRACKING

By Carl Safina

Originally posted on Huffington Post 8/4/2013:

My friend Andrew Revkin, whom I greatly respect, has lately been pointing out certain problems with critiques of gas fracking, and pointing out how it could be greatly improved, e.g.:

They want more gas until something better can come along. This is the “bridge” argument. Those proponents viewing fracking from the sidelines see that gas is cleaner than coal—well, what isn’t?—and thus a “bridge” between coal and the next big thing. (The ones in it for the money couldn’t care less about “bridges;” they’d burn theirs if someone paid them enough.) The “bridge” proponents see gas as the best thing to use while we’re building our new energy future by scaling up clean renewables like sunlight and wind and geothermal which come perpetually for free once you build the structures to harness them.

Revkin and others whom he cites want improvements in the fracking process and offer nuanced arguments for how that could be accomplished. But my observation is that people in the energy business aren’t into nuance; they’re into fast, heavy moneymaking. And they are exquisitely good at it.

Anyway, what I want to ask here is, could any nuance alter the conclusion that fracking is bad and should be stopped, since the following two things are true:
Water supplies can get contaminated, and when fracking moves into an area, property values can sink to zero.

Is there anything else in which we deem it OK to ruin peoples’ homes and communities so some people can make more money? Didn’t we decide a long time ago that we need to protect things; what kind of country exempts one practice—fracking for gas—from its Clean Water Act, since the process contaminates water? The America I want and have loved doesn’t sell its core values. And yet we’ve done just that for fracking.

Aren’t some downsides big enough to be deal-breakers? Isn’t this all it boils to? There are two sides to the story but they are the usual: some want it for the short-term money, and some don’t because they’re long-term harmed.

And if economics incentivizes export of the gas, followed by price hikes, doesn’t this become another “too cheap to meter” pipedream? Aren’t we all set up to be totally duped, accepting fracking with the dangle of cheap prices only to be force-fed high prices as soon as enough people switch onto it that world gas prices can be hiked?

America could become “the Saudi Arabia of gas,” but I’d rather it just be America the beautiful. (Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia aspire to become the America of the Middle East?) Call me conservative in that sense. I’d rather we hold a white light at the end of a tunnel rather than a blue flame amidst poisoned water and divided communities.

What might seem idealistic daydreaming by those opposed is also visionary resistance to a major foreseeable disaster that’s well underway. Idealism always calls to mind Thoreau’s line of practical advice, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

I think a lot is at stake, and when facts are arrayed about the benefits of gas, one needs to be realistic about the how of this playing-out (the politics, economics, and mainly the usual human psychology), followed by and a yes/no decision about whether fracking is OK or wrong.

I don’t think it’s OK.

I wish I did, because gas would be better than oil or coal. As if it was that simple; oil and coal will still be very much used. And though it may be simplistic to conclude the following, this simple conclusion is as valid and fact-based as any conclusion that argues that we need global fracking: we should elevate self-renewing sources in an Apollo-mission way, with Manhattan Project urgency—because it’s the right thing to do and the need is urgent. Isn’t either one of those two reasons always reason enough? Isn’t that the best reason?

Forget bridges, let’s get to the other side with all due haste and urgency, massively build up our renewable infrastructure, and stop nuancing more of the same drill-baby-drill catastrophe.

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GYRE Expedition – Day 5- Bearing Witness; Witnessing Bears. Act 2 (Wednesday, June 12)

June 26th, 2013 | No Comments
Bears, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, For the Birds, Travels

Originally posted on National Geographic 6/15/2013:…nesday-june-12/

A mile down the beach and a mile out on the flat more-or-less, another mother trails three cubs from clam-hole to clam-hole. When she spots a big dark male headed her way from half a mile away, she moves off, in a hurry and a worry, frequently glancing over her shoulder and occasionally breaking into a slow-bounding run that her cubs work hard to match.

Males sometimes kill cubs. For about 45 minutes she continues moving while he, frequently sniffing their trail, follows, closing the gap. He looks huge, the hump on his shoulder thick and high as a buffalo’s. I’d be scared to see him trailing me. And she shares that sentiment.

She goes pretty far down the beach and he gives up his idle pursuit and comes up the beach and over the berm and into the meadow, where we lose track.

She immediately relaxes, and starts digging clams with what’s left of the low tide; rising water is swallowing her shellfish buffet. In binoculars and camera, I admire the blond shine of her head and the dark burnished back of her neck to the deep fur of her dark shoulders.

All the activity has tired out her little cubs. They take little naps, resting their chins on their paws, as their mother digs. As she moves, they rouse and trail her closely, then as she digs again, they plop again. They’re exhausted.

Everybody's Tired Photo: Carl Safina

Everybody’s Tired
Photo: Carl Safina

Kip Evans, J. J. Kelly, and I walk down the beach toward her, duck over the berm so as not to bother her, and re-emerge at the point where she is straight out from us on the flat 100 yards away. She seemed so hopelessly distant when we first saw her, and now here she is, coming toward the beach as the tide eats up her dinner table.

The cubs nap more, and then she, too, lies down and closes her eyes. Every few minutes she checks her world. You know she worries about males; males are all she has to worry about right now.

The tide wets her cubs and wakes them. Then rouses her.

The whole GYRE shore-party plus rangers has now caught up with us, and we’re all assembled in one group.

The mother bear walks directly towards us. A grizzly and three cubs, walking directly towards us. A ranger tells us to bunch closer.

She comes right over the berm with her babes, immediately alongside the logs we’re sitting on, just a few feet from us all, looking enormous and gorgeous, her cubs perfect and adorable and curious. She move a little past and stops to graze less than 60 feet away.

She is stuffing her jaws with salad as her babies look over at us, standing for a better look in the tall grass. One of them, seeking a height advantage, climbs its mother’s back for a better look at us.

The mama bear is completely relaxed, and I have an idea why. I think she came to our group for the same reason we’re grouped: safety in numbers. In our presence, she can let down her guard. Any male would think twice about coming over here with all of us around. Calmly she munches, again moving a little closer.

And of our group, I am closest to her. I feel not the slightest fear. She is completely mellowed out. A little bit of a meeting of minds, perhaps? Perhaps not. But the proximity is her choice, and it’s my preference, so yes, perhaps.

She is now very close. I can clearly see the flies she’s scaring up, that’s how close. And the deep pile of her fur, and the scruffy light hairs on the cubs’ capes.

After eating a while, she decides to go from us, walking along a deep bear trail across the meadow, her cubs in a trailing train. She tops a rise, and when she gets over, it’s over.

I turn. Andy is streaming tears. I give him a hug. He puts on his sunglasses, turns away, and wipes his eyes. J.J.’s eyes are wet too. At least half our people are wiping their faces, breaking into nervous laughs. The chatter of humans returns.

What a gift, in this national park, where people come to bear-witness and no person hunts or seeks to harm them and they understand they are safe from us and they respond accordingly. Soon the salmon will come running and summer will turn fat enough to grow the biggest Brown Bears on Earth, in some of the densest numbers. These bears have hit the lottery. They are rich and privileged bears. And lucky ones.

Our relationship with nature is so distorted and often so full of harm and hazard. I did not mind an unnatural encounter so full—for a change—of peace and appreciation. If that could be all that was unnatural, I’d be all for it. I was grateful that our mother bear did not seem to hold against us the tons of trash we’d sent to her babies’ beach. Nor did she thank us for removing it. Nor should she.

That’s the way it should be.

Curious About The World Photo: Carl Safina

Curious About The World
Photo: Carl Safina

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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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