We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
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.
Fires are burning across the savanna landscape of Nyikina Mangala country. The fires are lit and managed by the Nyikina Mangala rangers together with cultural adviser and senior elder Mr. John Darraga Watson. Watson prefers to use matches while his younger crew dons drip torches. Soon, the grass is engulfed in flames. Just as quickly, it smolders out.
When it comes to managing these landscapes, “the most important thing is to listen to elders, I reckon, and the traditions and laws,” explains Ashton Howard at another burn site. Howard is a member of the Bardi Jawi ranger group based in Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) on the Kimberley’s Dampier Peninsula. “They know what’s best for the country because they live there and have been monitoring for years.”
Monitoring the glowing embers, he points out, “This is a cool burn because the flames are real low. It’s early in the year when it’s still green. We burn to reduce the fuel load and stop the late season wildfires that burn much hotter.”
In 2016, staff from The Nature Conservancy visited these areas in northern Australia to film virtual reality (VR) videos with our Indigenous partners, documenting their work in this vast landscape where their ancestors lived and worked for tens of thousands of years.
Transport yourself to Australia where Indigenous leaders and scientists will take you on a journey through the bush.
Editor’s Note: For the best experience, use your mobile device or a virtual reality headset to view these videos.
For more than 50,000 years, Indigenous Australians practiced careful management of the land that provided their food, shelter and livelihoods. Traditional fire practices centered on clearing bush to hunt for food, as well as regenerating the bush through new growth—and as a result, Australian landscapes evolved in the presence of fire for tens of thousands of years and have come to depend on it to regrow and flourish. But prescribed burning and the traditional way of life were interrupted due to European settlement.
As a result of European settlement, Indigenous groups suffered cultural and social dislocation from the land and waters that served as their source of life. Dry grasses built up and much larger wildfires sparked from natural causes like lightning. These larger and hotter fires devastate vegetation and animal habitat—and release a greater volume of greenhouse gases.
Aboriginal people have a deep connection to country—the surrounding natural territory—a major part of their identity. Having managed the land for tens of thousands of years, country is ingrained within their culture and that sense is passed down through generations. Hear from members of the Jarlmadangah Burru community about the role country plays in their lives.
The Bardi Jawi community, at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley, is helping native plant species to recover in this landscape. Watch to learn more about why managing these lands is so important to the Bardi Jawi culture.
What’s the economic significance of commercializing traditional land management activities for Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley? Learn more about how the Kimberley Land Council is helping to better livelihoods from Acting CEO Tyronne Garstone.
Preserving biodiversity, connecting to country and earning a sustainable livelihood are possible all at once through the Indigenous Ranger Program. It also saves lives.
Uncontrollable fire is the prime example of the environmental damage resulting from disruption to these traditional ways of landscape management. But a quiet revolution is taking place across the Australian Outback as Indigenous Australians are beginning to return to their ancestral lands to both manage them for conservation and provide a livelihood for their families as they did for thousands of years. The Indigenous Ranger Program, begun in 2007, is supported by a variety of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and the Australian Government. This program allows Indigenous people to maintain their relationship with the land, ensuring both the land and their culture continue to thrive.
“I think the ranger program has probably saved a lot of young people on country… You can see their self-confidence … has grown dramatically…They’ve become a good role model for kids.” – Bibido, Bardi Jawi Ranger Coordinator
In addition to fire management, the rangers also work on weed and feral animal control, take care of cultural heritage sites, and protect endangered species across the landscape.
“Being a ranger…You’re using traditional knowledge and western science to look after country…It makes me feel proud of who I am and my identity as an Aboriginal person. I’m glad to be out on my ancestors’ country burning.” – Robin Dann, Head Ranger, Wungurr Rangers
Indigenous knowledge and stewardship has been critical to protecting landscapes across the globe for millennia. The fire management work conducted by Australian Indigenous groups demonstrates the importance of retaining this body of cultural practice and knowledge and its potential to provide livelihoods for Indigenous peoples living in remote communities. Furthermore, this work with fire has prevented the emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere across millions of hectares – the equivalent of taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road – while also generating millions in revenue for conservation work.
To date, Indigenous fire managers have secured contracts for 9.1 million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, generating at least US$81 million in funding for indigenous-led conservation and employing 250 people. By 2025, a robust carbon economy could create 500 full-time equivalent jobs for 1,000 Aboriginal people, lead to 28.2 million tons of emissions reductions and bring $339 million in income for Aboriginal land managers.
“Our People … have … a long history that goes back forty, fifty thousand years. This knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation, from the old people to the young people. We say that Aboriginal people are the first conservationists, and it’s because of those values, because of that cultural relationship that Aboriginal people have with land.” – Nolan Hunter, CEO, Kimberley Land Council
Picking through the vegetation looking for bushfood, Linda Nardea paused to take in the view. The low sun made the cliffs particularly red and the spring resulted in a striking green burst of trees and shrubs. It was rough country, but breathtakingly beautiful. She pointed to the boots of the people around her. “Look at your shoes – I don’t need no shoes. The land knows me. She protects my feet. We belong here and we take care of each other. There’s no other way.”
The crew of Mir weathered a big storm and made it safely to southern Raja Ampat, but unfortunately for the author of this blog, there was some trouble in paradise.
Storm in the Arafura Sea. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere Foundation
If there’s one thing that’s certain about sea travel, it’s that conditions will change. Oftentimes, these changes are drastic and happen with little warning; after eight days of venturing across seas so calm we couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky began, we entered the Arafura Sea after a day’s sail from Banda and spent the next three days crawling across the decks on our hands and knees trying not to get blown overboard. We had to beat north directly into a storm; our bow scooping up hundreds of gallons of seawater and flooding the decks each time whoever was on the helm drifted a few degrees off their mark and took the swells straight on. None of us could sleep for the pitching, and we quickly found out what was truly ship-shaped and what wasn’t — galley cupboards flew open, our chain locker overflowed with seawater and flooded the bosun’s bilge, and a few of our crew had the unpleasant realization that their stomachs were yet to be ship-shaped as well, as seasickness rode in on the storm and turned our greenest sailors literally green.
Early morning after the storm broke. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationWe had to postpone the celebration of crew member Rebecca Hoehn’s birthday by a few days until we could take our rain jackets off long enough to enjoy some merrymaking. Happy birthday, Rebecca! Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
Arrival to Raja Ampat
Approaching Balbulol Island at dawn. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After surviving the Arafura, we caught our first glimpse of the southernmost end of Raja Ampat — a smattering of small, steep islands near the larger island of Misool. We approached the island of Balbulol at sunrise, and as we drew closer, the steep masses of greens and blacks took on a sharper focus, and we found ourselves mesmerized by a Jurassic scene. The jagged volcanic cliff faces were both black and burnt orange, and sparsely populated by large-leafed vegetation. Palm trees hung crooked and precarious from high perches on the vertical walls. White-bellied fish eagles careened off minarets of stone to take a closer look at us, while huge clusters of frigate birds circled above a protected lagoon like moths around an incandescent bulb. And schools of thousands of tiny silver fish silently breached the surface in unison in what I at first mistook for a crashing wave that would appear, disappear, and then reappear again twenty feet away from where it had just been.
A fisherman near Balbulol. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Our objective for our first week in southern Raja Ampat was to get ourselves ready for the next month of working with island peoples on conservation projects. We needed to get our newest divers comfortable diving in challenging conditions. We needed to train more small boat drivers. And we needed to get everyone up to speed on how to navigate Mir and her 113’ hull between tightly-packed islands and around sudden shoals and reefs. As well as learning the fine art of anchoring her safely while simultaneously not harming any corals.
On the lookout for a safe anchorage. Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere Foundation
Our first anchorage was on the lee side of a small, uninhabited island called Pulau Efna, where we spent the next few days acquainting ourselves with this little-known paradise — scuba diving, snorkeling, paddleboarding — all while getting our various systems down pat. One moonless night I put on my snorkel mask and jumped off the stern into bioluminescence so thick that every movement I made sent thousands of dots of whitish-blue lights swirling and snaking away from me. Each speck of light was strangely similar in both color and size to what stars look like with the naked eye on a dark, cloudless night, and simply waving a hand in front of my eyes while underwater was akin to looking out the windshield of the Millennium Falcon while Chewy punched her into hyperdrive.
Caught with Our Paddles Out
Clarence surveying the storm. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Before leaving on this voyage, Clarence Wainer — Mir’s chief engineer, and one of my dearest friends in this world thanks to the last time we sailed on Mir together from Malta to Singapore — convinced me that we should each get an inflatable paddleboard to bring to Raja Ampat. I agreed it was a great idea, and we got two beautiful boards from a company called Hala.
On one of our first evenings in southern Raja Ampat, Clarence and I decided to circumnavigate nearby Pulau Efna on our boards. Efna is a small, oblong island — not quite a mile long, and only a third of a mile wide, so we figured it wouldn’t take long to get around it. We started paddling around 4:30pm, and when we reached the north side of the island — directly opposite from where Mir was anchored — we noticed a small inlet of blue water flowing beneath some low-hanging tree branches.
Discovering the secret lagoon. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
We turned our boards into this narrow channel, ducking low beneath the foliage, and suddenly were whisked along by a strong tidal current into a brilliant turquoise stream that we rode like a chute until it opened up into a wide circular lagoon surrounded by steep, thickly-jungled hills. A flock of large, gregarious, pure-white umbrella cockatoos flapped above us, screaming and shrieking at the strange invaders who had just intruded into their secluded home.
Following Clarence further into the lagoon. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
We were spellbound. A light rain began to fall which only added to the surreal beauty, turning the clear waters of the lagoon a milky serpentine. As we paddled around the lagoon, the rain grew heavier, but protected as we were, it just felt like a soft, tropical downpour — rain had become such a common occurrence in the past week that we hardly thought anything of it.
Starting to rain. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation
When we finally pulled ourselves away from this turquoise dreamscape to begin our paddle back to the ship before it got dark, it dawned on us that this might not be just any ordinary afternoon rainstorm. Leaves and bark and branches were blowing off of Efna from the southwest, and though we were still protected from the wind where we were, it was clearly driving hard out there and might give us some trouble when we tried to round the bend.
The rain was relentless as we paddled, and the sky bruised deeply black. All I had on were swim trunks and a head-mounted GoPro, and Clarence bested me only with a light rash guard for a shirt. As we approached the sharp point on Efna’s southeastern side we began to see the white caps. We pulled our boards up onto a small sandstone shelf and walked around the corner, and our hearts sank. Barely visible through the sideways rain was Mir at her anchorage — a small blurred mass banging violently up and down at her bow. There was roughly a quarter mile of open water between us and her — open water that was shattered by breaking waves. We both knew without needing to say it that it would be impossible to cross that battlefield on inflatable paddleboards. We later learned that the rest of our crew were having quite the adventure of their own as they had to rev Mir’s engine to keep the anchor from dragging in the force six winds.
With only one shirt between us and a half an hour of daylight remaining, Clarence and I were stuck standing on the sandstone shelf that was rapidly getting buried beneath the crashing waves and rising tide. We held our hands above our heads to signal to the ship that we were safe, though we had no idea if anyone could see us through the squall or not.
Clarence attempting to signal to Mir that we’re “safe.” Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
We started getting cold fast — especially skinny, shirtless me. There was a small cave beside the shelf that was waist-deep with sloshing water, and we found that it was warmer in there than out in the wind, so we took turns standing on the shelf signaling to the ship, while the other crawled into the cave and sat up to his chin in seawater.
Trying to remain jocular despite the unfortunate circumstances. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation
Our biggest worry was that our crew would send out the small boat to look for us, which could quickly domino the situation into a far worse emergency, so we were relieved when just before dark we saw a flashlight at Mir’s stern. It beamed us three times to let us know they had seen us. We hoped it also meant that they knew we were safe enough to not need a rescue.
Tide coming up. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation
My teeth were chattering by this point, so we decided to go back in the direction we had come from where the wind hadn’t been so strong. We paddled on our knees in near total darkness, and after a little ways we pulled into a jungly nook and hauled our boards onto a single flat rock and leaned our bodies against the steep, muddy hillside.
It didn’t take long for us to accept that this new spot was no better than the last one had been, so now in both heavy rain and complete darkness we paddled out again even further away from Mir, and found a small sandy beach on Efna’s eastern side. We constructed a pathetic hut out of our two boards to keep the rain off us, and I’m not too proud to admit that Clarence and I got pretty darn cozy under there, draping his one shirt across both of our torsos while we tried in vain to keep each other warm.
At no point did we ever stop laughing and joking about our predicament — Clarence and I were once in even deeper water, literally, when the two of us were briefly lost at sea together after a scuba dive off the coast of Sudan seven years ago, so we were at least glad to have some solid ground beneath our feet this time around. Despite our levity, I don’t think I was alone in beginning to wonder how this story of being marooned on Efna was going to end, and if we weren’t perhaps in a bit more danger than either of us was willing to acknowledge out loud.
The rain wouldn’t quit, and it started to feel very likely that we’d be spending the night in our inflatable hut on this tiny white beach. But after a few hours it finally did begin to let up, and we started to listen hard to hear if the wind was still blowing through the trees above us. It was, but it didn’t sound too strong. We knew we didn’t want to take another stab at paddling back to Mir until we were relatively certain we wouldn’t have to turn around again, so we hunkered down and waited for the calmer weather to really take before trusting it. About forty-five shivering minutes later the waves lapping at our feet began to burst into electric blue with bioluminescence at the same time that some sort of Raja Ampat fireflies started twinkling neon green in the air around us.
“Sky looks lighter,” Clarence said.
“It does, but let’s wait it out a little longer,” I replied.
It was when the buzz of crickets and other jungle insects grew deafening around us that we felt sure the storm had really passed. We deconstructed our hut and vowed to stay within a paddle’s reach of one another, then pushed off and started making our way back towards Mir. We had no flashlights, but our eyes were well-adjusted to the dark, and when we reached the sharp point where hours earlier the water had been impenetrable, we turned it easily and saw home — Mir had all her deck lights on and looked like the most warm and welcoming refuge. All we had to do was cross the quarter mile or so of open water between us and her.
As promised, Clarence and I stayed side by side, and though the swell was still overhead, it was well-spaced, and the current was mild — we rolled across that black field of undulating water with little issue, and were welcomed home with big hugs and sighs of relief, and a huge bowl of the best curry I ever ate in my life.
Eating a hot meal after making it home to Mir. Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere Foundation
We learned some valuable lessons that night about always being prepared for the worst. Next time we decide to circumnavigate a remote island on paddleboards you can be sure we’ll bring along a radio.
And two shirts.
And a flashlight.
A Little Back Story
Unfortunately getting caught in a storm wasn’t the end of my troubles. On the morning of January 25th — three days after our paddleboarding misadventure — I was in the small zodiac loading dive bottles into the bottom of the boat when I bent down and out of nowhere it felt like someone stabbed me in the lower spine with an electrified ice pick. I yelled and slumped down in agony and wiggled and contorted myself into a flat lying position. People yelled for the captain, Laser, and he jumped down from Mir into the small boat and came to my aid.
I now know that I herniated a disk in my lumbar spine. It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I couldn’t get out of the small boat for almost three hours, and when I finally did it took three guys to get me to my feet, and even more people to help me up the ladder and onto a bed on the deck. The pain was so intense I nearly fainted while they were moving me.
Getting me to my feet. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationGetting me back off my feet. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere Foundation
Once settled on deck, I was too afraid to be moved again, so when nighttime came along I insisted on sleeping where I was. Of course in the middle of the night a rainstorm bullied in, and there was nothing anyone could do for me besides wrap me up in a tarp and periodically check on me. Man, can things change fast — earlier that day I had woken up feeling strong and healthy. Before 8:00am I had already been on a beautiful scuba dive and was helping another team get ready to do the same. I was in Raja Ampat on a gorgeous old sailboat. I was on top of the world. But by that night, I was stuck outside in a rainstorm, burrito-wrapped in a thick tarp, and in so much pain I could barely roll onto my side to piss into an empty tomato sauce jar. And as I lay there listening to the rain against my tarp, I could tell it was going to be a good, long while before that guy who had woken up feeling strong and healthy would be back.
Recovering on deck with a homemade piña colada and a live concert — not too shabby! Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere FoundationDolphin serenading us at sunset near the island of Wagmab. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
As I’m typing this it’s day eight of my recovery, and only as of yesterday can I stand up unassisted. But I’m making progress, slowly slowly, and it’s all thanks to this wonderful crew of people who have been feeding me delicious meals, slow-dancing me to and from the bathroom, changing my sweaty sheets, massaging me, and doing their best to downplay the beauty of the dives and snorkels they’ve been going on; as well as the many paddleboard adventures between the narrow chutes of the nearby islands where Pacific reef herons scatter like confetti from the steep craggy cliff walls, and enormous secluded lagoons open up unexpectedly like lost kingdoms of aquamarine. Sigh.
The hidden, protected lagoon of Wagmab Island. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation
Stuck on my back in Raja Ampat. Lucky for me there’s so much more of this adventure yet to come, and I’m on the mend. Perhaps my body knew that if I had to go down this was the time, because what’s on the horizon will be even more entrancing and magnificent than what we’ve already seen. I’m sure hoping so.
Keep following along on our voyage as we venture deeper into Raja Ampat. And check out the Biosphere Foundation’s website to learn more about our many projects and how you can get involved: www.biospherefoundation.org
We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. –-Jonathan Gottschall
People have been telling stories since before Homo sapiens mastered language, and, whether we realize it or not, we hear and tell stories every day. Stories come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are bound by their ability to help us understand the world and our place in it. Since they deliver emotional impacts, stories have the power to cause people to change their minds.
Last month, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published “Using Story to Change Systems,” in which author Ella Saltmarshe identified three core qualities through which “all sectors can use [stories] to change systems: story as light, as glue, and as web.” In a nutshell, this means that stories can spotlight faults in a system while drawing attention to bright spots where positive change is either already happening or envisioned for the future. Stories also bring communities together by engendering “empathy and coherence”; we’re far more likely to understand another person’s position when emotions and narratives are involved. And, finally, stories build webs that help us rewrite our own personal narratives, not to mention cultural and mythic frameworks.
With the environment in crisis and wildlife suffering from the Sixth Great Extinction, conservationists must learn to use stories to bring awareness to environmental declines while helping people understand the planet’s precarious position and how we are part of problems and solutions. In recent years, conservationists, most of whom train as scientists, have begun to recognize the importance of communication and storytelling—an important step for a community that once scoffed at the idea of communicating with the general public (during a September 2015 speech in San Antonio, Texas, which I attended,Jane Goodall shared that the University of Cambridge was incredibly disappointed when she revealed that she planned to publish the results of her PhD with an outlet that targeted the masses).
Things have changed dramatically since then. In 2015, the University of Cambridge admitted me—a lawyer-turned-journalist with no scientific education beyond high school—to its Conservation Leadership master’s program. During the yearlong course, I heard countless lecturers discuss the need for improved conservation communication, so I decided to write my dissertation on what I call “conservation storytelling.” My general observations about narrative align with Saltmarshe’s, but I worry that intellectual discussions about something as complex as storytelling border on the esoteric, which is especially problematic for conservationists who’ve studied conservation biology instead of literature or creative writing. “Scientist storytellers,” as author Randy Olson calls them, need practical guidance for mastering the art of storytelling,
I spent many frustrated hours in the University Library trying to come up with a simple definition for “story” and eventually realized that the concept is too elusive to be instructive. Instead, I parsed out elements that make stories successful:
Enchant and inspire wonder;
Show, don’t tell;
Feature change, drama, and tension;
Feature clear characters that are ideally relatable;
Depict a hero overcoming obstacles—sometimes on a quest;
Pit good against evil using protagonists and antagonists; and
Engage the listener.
Although it’s helpful to consider these features when crafting a story, the seven elements are not intended to operate as a checklist: in fact, some may be mutually exclusive (a story featuring protagonists battling antagonists may not have the ability to enchant and inspire wonder). There are different kinds of stories, each with its own time and place, and a storyteller’s expertise and nature influence his decision to pursue a particular tone. David Attenborough, for instance, trades on approachability and wonder; though his documentaries often feature drama, I would argue that stirring enchantment is his greatest gift.
To understand how the above techniques operate in conservation, I looked to recent conservation narratives. Documentaries were an obvious starting point since they’re among the most popular science and conservation stories of today, plus they employ all of the core elements. At their core, they tend to enchant and inspire or play on conflict. Universal narratives—like life, death, and family ties—connect human viewers to animal characters even when films don’t contain clear protagonists. But while drama sells, networks like the BBC Natural History Unit—which is committed to educating in addition to entertaining—must watch out for sensationalism of the kind on display during Shark Week. Though appealing, shock-and-awe programs often reinforce negative stereotypes about animals, which may reduce public interest in conserving endangered species.
A notable example of a single story that engaged citizens and encouraged them to tell their own versions of the original narrative involved the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer. Oxford University’s WildCRU analyzed traditional and social media in reaction to Cecil’s death, finding “an unprecedented media reaction” spanning the globe. WildCRU believed that Cecil’s story resonated because: an identifiable villain killed the big cat; Cecil died a slow, painful death; the main reaction to his shooting was anger, which causes more social media sharing than sadness; and, finally, Cecil was a majestic, well-studied animal with an English nickname.
Researchers often dislike naming animals since the practice anthropomorphizes them, but Cecil’s case proves that people respond to animals with human names. And why wouldn’t they? We’re accustomed to calling one another by name, and names are easier to remember than a string of characters. Media outlets took Cecil’s personification a step further by focusing on the fact that his death would likely lead to the death of his offspring. They, perhaps subconsciously, made us realize that Cecil wasn’t just a lion: he was a father. Although some conservationists support trophy hunting, everyone seemed to vilify Palmer. Perhaps this stemmed from the circumstances, or maybe it was strategic: dramatic headlines hook readers, some of the best stories pit good against evil, and conservation organizations stand to benefit from public outrage.
It’s far easier to get people excited about beautifully shot wildlife films and controversial topics, like trophy hunting, than it is to advocate on behalf of insects or bats, but less charismatic animals star in stories, too. Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle learned to take interesting photographs of bats that showcase their unique attributes and physical characteristics. For years, the Bronx Zoo has run “Name a Roach,” a successful fundraising campaign around Valentine’s Day that taps into our communal dislike for the insect. And children’s books prove that children are open to connecting with any kind of animal character; just look at Charlotte’s Web.
Conservationists often feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, so asking them to add storytelling to their to-do lists may seem like asking too much. But, just as stories about nature inspire appreciation for the natural world, experiences in the natural world inspire creativity. It could be argued, then, that stories produce nature-lovers, and nature-lovers produce stories, both relationships key to a continuous appreciation for, and protection of, the planet.
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Ambitious and entrepreneurial lawyer-turned-multimedia journalist focused on wildlife conservation. After three years of practicing law— first as a securities lawyer in London, then as a media lawyer in Washington, D.C.— I put law aside to pursue my primary passions: storytelling and conservation. I subsequently: completed several month-long volunteering stints with Namibian conservation organizations; spent a year writing for the Wildlife Conservation Society; published conservation articles with a wide range of magazines and newspapers, from Outside and Scientific American to The Guardian and Mongabay; and presented/produced a digital segment for Earth Touch News. I recently completed a master’s in conservation leadership from the University of Cambridge, with my focus on conservation storytelling, and now work as a journalist and conservation consultant in London.