Hundreds of canvasback ducks flock to open water on a cold winter morning on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
“They came back,” says biologist Donald Webster. “This year.” His voice has a wistful note, wondering if the king of ducks, as the beautiful, crimson-headed canvasback is known, will return to rule Chesapeake Bay again next winter.
In parka, gloves and hat, Webster, waterfowl coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), raises his binoculars near a seawall that runs along the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. The lookout where the Choptank meets the Chesapeake is a mecca for wintering canvasbacks and other ducks.
“Canvasbacks, the waterfowl everyone comes to see, are usually here by Christmas, sometimes by Thanksgiving,” Webster says. “They stay through March, then they’re gone, heading north to nesting grounds.”
Canvasbacks form large groups in winter, especially in areas near food sources. Here, on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Skeins of waterfowl
On this early March morning with calm winds and temperatures that hover around freezing, the canvasbacks’ red heads stand out against winter-dark waters. The ducks glide near the seawall, where a dozen photographers jostle for a quintessential shot of an iconic Chesapeake duck. “This spot is known as the ‘wall of shame,’” laughs Webster, “because it’s almost too easy to get great waterfowl pictures here.”
Chesapeake skies fill with ducks – canvasbacks, buffleheads, greater and lesser scaup, and many others – from December through March. The bay is the Atlantic Coast’s most important waterfowl migration and wintering area. The Chesapeake and its 19 major tributaries, including the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, provide winter habitat for 24 species of ducks as well as Canada geese, greater snow geese and tundra swans on their annual stopovers.
“Long-term worsening of the Chesapeake’s water quality, however, and loss of habitat, especially the grasses so many of these birds depend on, have contributed to declines in wintering waterfowl on the bay,” says Webster.
Canvasbacks in a spot along the Chesapeake that’s protected from winter winds, and where aquatic grasses are ready-to-eat. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Seesawing duck and grass estimates
According to a 2016 estimate, the most recent available, some 97,433 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) remain in the bay and its tributaries, down from historic levels that may have reached more than 600,000 acres.
There’s good news, however. The 2016 estimate is an 8 percent increase over 2015, and more than twice the SAV in 2013.
In 2011, Chesapeake SAV fell to 48,195 acres, a result of the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The storms sent a flood of sediment downstream and into the bay. Conditions since, which have been relatively dry, reduced the flow of grass-smothering sediment and helped the SAV recover. More sunlight has reached submerged grasses, allowing them to flourish. In turn, SAV filters runoff, helping keep Chesapeake waters clear.
Several birds watch a canvasback diving for dinner. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
SAV: A canvasback’s best friend
As recently as 1950, half the continent’s population of canvasbacks – more than a quarter million — wintered in Chesapeake Bay, relying on aquatic grasses as a favored food source.
During Colonial times, as many as one million canvasbacks may have spent wintertime on the bay. In the 19th century, the ducks’ abundance and, to many, good taste made them a favored selection in many East Coast restaurants, says Matt Kneisley, regional director for the Northeast Atlantic Flyway at the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a waterfowl conservation and hunting organization.
The birds congregate in large flocks on open waters, leading to easy -– too-easy — harvesting. At the end of the 19th century, commercial hunters with batteries of weapons went after rafts of canvasbacks, often killing dozens with one shot. The ducks were shipped by boxcar to markets from Baltimore to Boston. Such “market hunting” was outlawed with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
“Canvasbacks were a favored quarry of market hunters because their meat was considered the tastiest of all the ducks due to their consumption of wild celery,” writes Guy Baldassarre in the 2014 edition of Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America.
Adds Kneisley, “Large beds of wild celery, a canvasback favorite, once attracted thousands of these ducks to an upper bay area known as Susquehanna Flats.” The decline in the Chesapeake’s water quality greatly reduced the amount of wild celery bay-wide, however.
The ducks switched their foraging efforts to small clams on the Chesapeake’s shallow bottom. A less nutritious diet of shellfish such as Baltic clams may affect canvasbacks’ winter survival rates, scientists believe.
Canvasbacks shed water after diving for food. How many of these ducks winter on the Chesapeake? To find out, scientists conduct an annual count. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Annual bird counts, Webster says, “give us a very good picture of how declines in SAV have affected wintering waterfowl.”
Half a century ago, four to five million ducks, geese and swans spent time on Chesapeake Bay during the winter. Now, that number is less than one million, according to results from the 2018 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. The nationwide count has taken place annually since the 1950s.
Along the Chesapeake and nearby Atlantic coast, aerial survey teams of pilots and biologists from the Maryland DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make visual estimates of the region’s waterfowl. In 2018, the teams counted some 1,023,300 ducks, geese and swans, higher than the 812,600 birds observed in 2017 and above the 5-year average of 851,980.
“Cold weather and accompanying ice and snow to the north will typically push birds south as they search for food and open water,” says Maryland DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service director Paul Peditto. With December’s frigid temperatures and iced-in lakes in northern states, ducks were on-the-wing to points south.
Estimates of Chesapeake canvasbacks in 2018 were 60,000; in 2017, 75,100; in 2016, 19,800; and in 2015, 64,200. Sixty years earlier, in 1955, 225,450 canvasbacks were sighted. The last time the canvasback count exceeded 100,000 was in 1967: 133,100.
Nonetheless, says Webster, “Chesapeake Bay is one of the best places on Earth to see waterfowl in winter, and as they migrate in and out in late fall and early spring.”
Most waterfowl migrate along corridors, the well-known “flyways.” Four major routes pass through the United States: the Pacific Flyway, which runs north-south along the West Coast; the Mississippi Flyway, which leads from the bays of northern Canada and the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico; the Central Flyway from northwestern Canada to Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula; and the Atlantic Flyway, which funnels waterfowl from central and eastern Canada along the Atlantic Coast to Florida. Chesapeake Bay is a major duck stop along the Atlantic Flyway.
A lone canvasback hen in a crowd of potential suitors. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Many of the Chesapeake’s wintering ducks began life in the prairie pothole region, which extends from the Midwestern northern tier states into Canada. There, about half North America’s ducklings hatch.
When the Wisconsin ice sheet of the last glacial period retreated northward some 15,000 years ago, tens of thousands of landlocked icebergs were left in its wake, writes Michael Furtman in On the Wings of a North Wind: The Waterfowl and Wetlands of North America’s Inland Flyways.
These small icebergs melted into the soil. As they faded, Furtman states, “they became the foundation of the prairie potholes. An estimated 10 million glacially carved depressions once pockmarked the landscape of the prairie pothole region of the United States and Canada.”
As climate warmed, the potholes evolved into a habitat so enticing that more than 130 bird species have used a single pothole in one year. Ducks were likely among the first residents. With millions of potholes from which to choose, waterfowl had plenty of room to find nesting sites.
“The diversity of potholes, ranging from small spring ponds to large permanent wetlands, provided ducks with the habitats necessary for each stage in their breeding and brood-rearing cycles,” Furtman states.
But as undisturbed land in the region gave way to agriculture, the number of potholes decreased, especially over the last 40 years. In North Dakota’s pothole region, where as many as 100 of these basins per square mile once existed, “60 percent of the original five million acres of wetlands has been lost,” Furtman reports. “Ninety-five percent of that loss is attributable to agriculture.”
Will the Chesapeake always welcome wintering canvasbacks? (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
If increasing agriculture isn’t challenge enough for waterfowl, rising global temperatures may result in more frequent and severe droughts in the prairie pothole region. The effect on breeding ducks would be devastating, says Webster.
“Decades ago,” he remembers, “the Chesapeake was full of canvasbacks. But no more. I’d like to see the days come back when canvasbacks’ red heads bobbed on the water as far as you could see.”
Canvasbacks and the many other ducks that winter on the Chesapeake have come a long way, Webster says. “The least we can do is show them some hospitality by making sure their environment — here, and on their breeding grounds — is healthy.”
Otherwise, the spectacle along the Choptank River may vanish, the seawall indeed becoming a wall of shame as the last canvasback’s wingbeats fade into silence.
The last Chesapeake canvasback? We need to do our part to help the “king of ducks” grace the bay each winter. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Brown anoles are one of the most successful species on the planet. These resilient creatures have settled throughout a large portion of the Western Hemisphere, even landing in such distant places as Hawaii and Singapore by hitching rides across the Pacific in shipments of ornamental plants. In the southeastern United States, they are actually displacing native green anoles, driving them higher into the trees. These cold-blooded creatures are happy almost anywhere, from shady forests to sun-drenched beaches.
“In The Bahamas, it would blow your mind how common these things are,” said Michael Logan, a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who studies them. “Pick any bush along the side of the road, look closely, and I’ll bet the bank you see a brown anole — or three — in there.”
You would think that with so many brown anoles covering so much of the planet there would be a lot of genetic variation within the species. Some lizards would be larger or smaller, faster or slower, lighter or darker — meaning that, by chance, a few anoles here or there would be adapted to new challenges, like climate change, and they would pass on these traits to a younger generation of climate-tolerant lizard. But new research suggests that isn’t happening.
Brown anole. Photo: Thomas Brown
The findings, recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could have significant implications for the future of all cold-blooded species — the anoles, as well as other reptiles, amphibians and fish — whose body temperatures vary with that of the outside environment. Studying these species, known as ectotherms, can help scientists better understand the perils of global warming because their lives are so precisely connected to fluctuations in temperature.
“It was surprising to find such low genetic variation in traits that are important under climate change, such as the body temperature at which lizards run the fastest,” a trait essential to outrunning predators, Logan said. “So how have these guys invaded and adapted to such disparate regions of the globe if they lack what’s necessary for genetic adaptation?”
That’s a question still in need of an answer, although one possible explanation is that generations of anoles have faced challenging environments, and as the species evolved to meet these challenges, it wound up in something of a genetic cul de sac. The result is little variation among brown anoles. Logan explained how, over time, evolution yields very limited variability in certain traits.
“A trait like ‘number of limbs in tetrapods’ — amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals — is almost entirely determined by genes,” Logan said. “But because there is no variation in those genes among individuals — nearly all tetrapods are born with four limbs.” He added that “selection cannot act on a trait that has no variation.”
Michael Logan gathers research data in Great Exuma, Bahamas on brown anole lizards. Photo: Christine Miller
For their study, the scientists captured adult lizards from two very different habitats, one cool and forested, the other a hot, sun-soaked peninsula. They then bred the anoles in captivity and raised their offspring in the same laboratory setting.
“We did this because any differences between the populations would be due entirely to genetics,” Logan explained. “In other words, we controlled for ‘nurture’ so we could see if ‘nature’ played a role.” He said there were marked differences between cold-weather lizards and warm-weather lizards, despite growing up under the same conditions.
Using a high-speed camera, they filmed the lizards running across a wooden dowel rod after exposing them to different temperatures. They used gel packs and heating lamps to create temperatures from around 70 degrees F to around 120 degrees F, recording their responses. Predictably, the warm-weather lizards performed better at higher temperatures, but neither group displayed a lot of genetic variation.
“Our results suggest that natural selection may have used up all the available genetic variation to get these populations adapted to their thermal environments in the first place, leaving them with nothing to evolve further as the global climate continues to change,” Logan said.
Brown anole. Photo: Pixabay
The study showed that thermal traits have a genetic basis “because they differ between populations when we control for the effects of the environment,” he added. “But we also show that within each population these traits lack genetic variation, which means they can no longer evolve in response to selection.”
The brown anole, because of its large population and ability to colonize novel environments, is unlikely to be especially vulnerable to climate change — although it turned out to be more vulnerable than expected, he said. But the study raises troubling questions about the fate of other species in a warming planet.
Other species tend to cover a more limited area than the brown anole, and they tend to live only in one kind of thermal environment, Logan said. “If the brown anole with its success as a global invader lacks the necessary genetic variation to evolve rapidly, what does that say about the rest of biodiversity?” he said. “Species that are less prolific and more specialized should have even less genetic variation for selection to act on.”
Evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Universities of Montana, Missoula and Illinois, Champaign-Urbana — who was not involved in the study — said the research provides a critical link to understanding how cold-blooded creatures respond to changing temperatures.
Collared lizard. Photo: Pixabay
“There have been several studies that have shown that extreme weather events and rapid shifts in the environment can cause selective events — organisms with greater resilience to droughts, heat waves or cold snaps are more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation,” Campbell-Staton said. “However, as [the study] points out, evolution — which occurs across generations — can only happen if the traits that allow survival can be passed on to offspring.” With the brown anole, “the traits under selection in high temperature environments don’t seem to be passed from generation to generation very efficiently, meaning that adaptive evolution of those traits would presumably happen on a much slower time scale than the anticipated changes due to global warming,” Campbell-Staton added.
This mismatch “could potentially be a disastrous combination,” Campbell-Staton said. “It means that as the planet warms over time, selection on thermal performance may increase — meaning more individuals may die in a given generation — but the offspring of the survivors may only be slightly better fit to deal with continually rising temperatures, or no better off at all. The end result of this mismatch, if temperatures continue to rise, would inevitably be extinction.”
While the study isn’t directly applicable to warm-blooded humans, “it is clear that many species around the world, including the plants we depend on for food and oxygen, the insects that pollinate those plants, and many other ectothermic species that are important players in ecosystem health could be drastically affected,” Campbell-Staton added.
For species with small home ranges, lacking the ability to migrate, evolution should provide “their main avenue of escape,” from the effects of global warming, Logan said. But this study “hints that many of the species we love and care about may not be able to mount a rapid evolutionary response to climate change.”
Marlene Cimons writes forNexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.
There have been numerous wake-up calls about the effects of climate change on marine life. As ocean waters heat up, they are bleaching corals. Growing levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying seawater, which is degrading the shells and skeletons of sea organisms. The rising temperatures are prompting fish to migrate to colder waters, even causing them to shrink.
Now climate change is starting to affect their sense of smell, a phenomenon that will worsen in the coming years if global warming continues unabated, according to new research. A sense of smell is indispensable to fish. They use it to find food, detect imminent danger and elude predators, to find safe environments and spawning areas, even to recognize one another.
To lose it could threaten their very survival. If this happens, it also would mean big trouble for the fishing industry, tourism and, most importantly, global nutrition, since many of the world’s people — including its poorest — depend on fish for food.
Fishermen in Vietnam. PHOTO: Pexels
“Future levels of carbon dioxide can have large negative effects on the sense of smell of fish, which can affect fish population numbers and entire ecosystems,” said Cosima Porteus, a researcher at the University of Exeter and author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Climate Change.
“This can be prevented, but we must reduce carbon emissions now before it’s too late.”
Carbon dioxide combines with seawater to produce carbonic acid, which makes the water more acidic. Since the Industrial Revolution, oceanic CO2 has risen by 43 percent and is projected to be two and a half times current levels by the end of this century, according to the scientists.
Experts believe that about half of anthropogenic carbon dioxide — that is, emissions produced by human activities, such as the burning of fossils fuels — has over time ended up in the oceans, lowering the pH of seawater, and making it more acidic.
The sea bass used in the study. PHOTO: Cosima Porteus/Nature Climate Change
They found that sea bass exposed to the more acidic conditions swam less and were less likely to react when encountering the smell of a predator, offered to them in the form of very dilute monkfish bile. Also, they were more likely to “freeze,” a sign of anxiety, she said.
“I found the longer they were in high CO2, the worse they fared,” she said. The scientists also measured the ability of the fish to detect certain odors in different levels of acidity by recording their nervous system activity. “I recorded the olfactory — smell — nerve response by measuring the electrical activity of the nerve to these different odorants in the water that flowed over the nose of the fish in both normal and high CO2 seawater,” Porteus said.
“The odorants tested were those that would be involved in finding food — amino acids — and in recognizing fish of the same or other species, including bile acids, bile, intestinal fluid, etc., at different concentrations, and at levels they would encounter in the wild,” she added.
The researchers found that seawater acidified with levels of carbon dioxide that are expected by the end of the century — if global warming continues — reduced the sense of smell of sea bass by half, compared with today’s levels.
“Their ability to detect and respond to some odors associated with food and threatening situations was more strongly affected than for other odors,” Porteus said. “We think this is explained by acidified water affecting how odorant molecules bind to olfactory receptors in the fish’s nose, reducing how well they can distinguish these important stimuli.”
They did not compare the impact of today’s ocean acidity levels with those of pre-industrial times, although they plan further research to do so. “It is possible that sea bass are already being affected by a rise in oceanic pH,” she said.
Fresh catch at the fish market. PHOTO: Pixabay
The researchers also studied the impact of high levels of CO2 and acidity on genes expressed in the nose and brain of sea bass and found them altered — but not in a good way. Rather than adjust, things deteriorated, Porteus said.
“The gene expression experiment was conducted to see if these fish were able to compensate for their loss of sense of smell over a short period of time, not generations,” she explained. “Animals have some ability to respond to a stressful condition by making more proteins or different proteins that work better under different conditions.”
Researchers can determine this by looking at what genes change or are different between animals exposed to different conditions, normal and high CO2, for example, according to Porteus.
“One way to smell something better is to have more receptors detecting these smells in order to increase the chance that particular smell will be detected, and therefore increase the expression of these receptors,” she said. “Another way is [for them] to make a slightly different receptor that works better under lower pH. However, we did not find any evidence this was the case.”
Instead, they found the fish were making fewer such receptors, making it more difficult for them to detect smells, she said.
“There was a decrease in ‘active’ genes, indicating that these cells were less excitable, therefore responding even less to smells in the environment,” she said. “This means that these fish had a reduced sense of smell and instead of compensating for this problem, the changes in their cells were making the problem worse. This matched our observations of their behavior.”
Sea bass. PHOTO: Pixabay
The team chose to study European sea bass because they are an economically important species, both for food consumption and for sport fishing, Porteus said.
Nevertheless, “we think the ability to smell odors is similar in most, if not all, fish species, so what we have found for sea bass will almost certainly apply to all fish species, and maybe invertebrates too, such as crabs, lobsters etc.,” she said. “So all the commercially important species are likely to be affected in a similar way, such as salmon, cod, plaice, turbot, haddock etc.”
This is important because 20 percent of the protein consumed by 3 billion people comes from seafood, and about 50 percent of this comes from fish caught from the wild, according to Porteus. “Therefore, increases in carbon dioxide in the ocean have the potential to affect all fish species, including those that many people rely on for food and livelihood,” she said.
Marlene Cimons writes forNexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.
By Jennifer Molnar,Managing Director and Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Sustainability Science
Recently, I watched my 5-year-old nephew and 2-year-old twin nieces dig into my mom’s garden in New Jersey—looking for worms and pill bugs and other crawling treasures in the early spring dirt.
It brought back early memories of doing the same with my sister—digging into the dirt, trampling through creeks, climbing trees. Exploring nature, and finding cool things.
My interest in science started in moments like that.
It was fun to find new things. And then I became curious and started asking questions. Why does that animal live there? Why is it that color? What does it eat?
Science is about understanding the world and how it works, and I was beginning by exploring my neighborhood.
The more I’ve explored, the more I’ve learned how integral science is in our lives. By knowing how plants grow, we can raise crops that feed us. Biology and chemistry allow us to learn about diseases and how we can fight them.
Science also shows us how interdependent our world is and how much we depend on nature.
For example, water doesn’t just come into our homes through a pipe. It starts by falling from the sky, then it flows over land before joining with a river or lake and ultimately traveling through that pipe. What that water flows over makes a big difference in how clean it is. Flowing over the pavement of city streets and parking lots, it picks up contaminants like gasoline, motor oil, and trash. Flowing through a forest, the ground can act like a sponge, absorbing and filtering the water.
We can take advantage of nature’s role in protecting our water supply. Companies can not only look for efficiencies within their factories, but invest in conservation upstream to avoid the need to filter water. And cities can bring elements of nature into their urban spaces—using rain gardens and bioswales to allow rain water to flow more slowly and filter through the ground to enter waterways cleaner.
There are many other ways that nature supports our lives and our economy. Trees filter our air. Healthy soils are needed to grow healthy food. Fish from rivers and oceans feed us. And of course there are the intrinsic values of nature and benefits we get from just spending time in it—relieving stress and having fun.
Science allows us to make better decisions—including how we can better support nature so it keeps supporting us.
Science is also critical to addressing one of the biggest challenges we face today—climate change. We have seen evidence of changes that are already happening, with models indicating more will come if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sea levels are rising. Animals are changing migration patterns and farmers are shifting crop timing due to earlier springs. Weather events are becoming more extreme and less predictable.
Data on these changes allow our communities and companies to better understand the risks and develop solutions to adapt.
Unfortunately, despite the critical role science plays in our lives, its value today often gets questioned. And now in the United States, federal budgets and programs for science and conservation are threatened.
It is more important than ever for us to speak up for science, including the science of nature and its value.
As scientists, this includes communicating the importance of our work not only to peers, but also to broader audiences. To raise awareness of the role science plays in our lives, so it won’t be taken for granted.
All of us can speak up to support science through our votes and calls to government representatives. We can deliver the message that having science data and using it to inform our decisions—in policy, by companies, in our daily lives—is critical.
And I also hope that many more kids will see the wonder and awe of science like I did. Exploring their part of the world and asking questions, and then being inspired to keep asking questions through careers in science. They will be our next generation of explorers and problem solvers—helping us to better understand our world and what we can do so people and nature can thrive together.
Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.