Monday, November 21, 2011

Until It Sings

Nature photography is a labor of love. It takes a lot of patience and serious type-A focus flowing through your veins to make the shot and sit satisfied with the result. I'm constantly reviewing old images and thinking of how I could have done them better. I'm never satisfied.  I'm not sure if this is a character flaw or just a layer of callous that's built up from years of relationships with picky editors. When I first starting learning, a great mentor and friend of mine, Nancy Rotenberg, used to tell me to "shoot it 'till it sings." While this was a great motto, I really just used it as an excuse to indulge my compulsiveness. I'm becoming more and more self conscious of this as I'm in the field with friends and coworkers who sit and wait for me to finish photographing, but luckily, they're more patient than I am.

A couple weeks ago we found a healthy population of tadpoles swimming around in one of our equipment rinse tanks. I brought a few home to photograph different stages of their lives for a composite image. It was a fun project that I thought would take only an hour. The more I photographed, however, the pickier I got and the more I demanded from these little amphibians. Before I knew it, I spent 4 hours photographing 5 very uncooperative tadpoles and pollywogs. I worked every angle and wouldn't rest until I had all my bases covered.

After compiling the images, I was thrilled to see the genesis of this small afternoon project. What started out as one-dimensional photos, turned into a three-dimensional story about time and form. And for me, that's when it sings. But I still wasn't satisfied. It was killing me that the last frog wasn't a true adult. It crawled under my skin that the series could be better, and yet I published the photo knowing there was still room for improvement.

In art, this is a big no-no. We're only supposed to display our pieces, always showing our best face. I've never been comfortable with this idea, though. I appreciate the often slow and steady pace of creativity. Sometimes I just need to move on from a photo in order to come back and see it in its best light. Hitting the "publish" button often provides that necessary distance.

Tonight I found the missing piece to this image, sitting right outside my front door. As soon as I saw the Cuban tree frog adult, I grabbed my camera equipment and set up a studio knowing exactly what position I wanted of him for the final portrait. With a little help from Adam Chasey, frog-wrangler extraordinaire and most patient man alive, I got the photo I needed. Like a kid on Christmas morning I immediately uploaded the photos and began working on the finished piece.

I'm pretty happy with this one. My compulsiveness is at bay. At least for now. Well, until I start thinking about adding a clump of eggs at the bottom left.    

Friday, November 18, 2011

At a Loss

Water management in south Florida has been at the forefront of environmental and political debate ever since the turn of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, even today with all that we know of the Everglades and its significance to Florida and imperiled watersheds all around the world, we're still struggling to get it right.

This September the two agencies in charge of Everglades restoration efforts, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, slashed their funding of scientific monitoring programs by 60%. These monitoring programs help gauge the effectiveness of Everglades restoration and are the foundation in which water management policies are shaped. Without the science, we're essentially losing the cause-and-effect data that tells us if our restoration projects are working. As you know, the Army Corps and SFWMD's funding comes from taxes, from us. By the power vested in Gov Rick Scott, the budget cuts were designed to cut taxes and reduce state spending, so he looked for places to trim the fat; somewhere no one would notice. But instead, he chose the backbone fund of Everglades restoration.

The taxes to be cut are taxes on homeowners. If you have a home valued at $100,000 then you are saving $15 a year from this monumental tax break. I know what you're thinking, "holy crap, what am I going to do with all this extra cash now?!" The possibilities are endless. At the cost of science and hundreds of jobs, we can all enjoy a few more lattes from Starbucks or that leopard-print Snuggie we've always wanted.

The truth is that we've been here before and it didn't work. We tried water management without monitoring programs, which is why we're now stuck spending 14 billion dollars to bring our Everglades back. History alone should teach us that we're far from understanding the complexities of mother nature, but the more we invest in the comprehensive science, the better our understanding will be, and the more informed we will become when making decisions for our people and environment.

A satellite-tagged crocodile, one of Frank Mazzotti's, who's program was eliminated after the budget cuts.

To give you a little perspective, the overall price tag of Everglades restoration is $14,000,000,000. With these cuts, $4,000,000 will be taken away and thus the funding to many key programs such as fish monitoring, crocodile and alligator research, submerged aquatic vegetation studies, and several other water quality programs. For such invaluable data, it's merely a drop in the budget bucket, not even one percent. By definition these monitoring programs are the only way we have of knowing for sure if the other $13,996,000,000 we spend is going to good use. 

A plug on East Cape Canal at Cape Sable keeps saltwater from pushing further
into the freshwater Everglades ecosystem. Tavernier Science Center's sample site
was just beyond the plug, but no longer receives funding to conduct research there.

We are one of the lucky few at Tavernier Science Center. Well, lucky in that we still have jobs. Our budget also suffered from the cuts and we lost nearly half of our sample sites. We closed sites at Cape Sable where they just finished putting in plugs to stop saltwater encroachment, so we won't know if they're working to restore the freshwater ecosystem. We were also forced to close sites in the Biscayne Bay area and northeastern Florida Bay. No longer will we have access to helicopters, so last month we had to decommission four locations hauling all of our equipment out in a swing-loaded cargo net. State director of research, Jerry Lorenz, decided to take a day away from the office to help breakdown our Rocky Creek site, and see it for the last time.

He and I flew out early in the morning over the ridge and sloughs of the southern Everglades. Restricted water flows had started to show their subtle but detrimental affect on the landscape, now clearly visible at 800 feet. He looked on, despondent and removed, like an artist stepping back from the canvas to see strokes and details incongruous with his original vision.

Jerry Lorenz stands with a boat loaded up with nearly 500 pounds of re-bar, PVC, lumber,
and hydrological equipment, all to be sent back to the office in Tavernier. 

When we landed at Rocky Creek and hauled away the first load of boardwalks, Jerry had trouble finding the words to express his disappointment. It took days to build the site, months to scout it out, and years to figure out its place in the greater watershed. After a matter of hours, it was completely gone. The helicopter carried out the last load and we sat silent, tired, and wet under the dissipating hum of the propeller. Jerry looked on as it faded into the horizon, but stayed watching, perhaps hoping that it would turn back around. 

A deep sigh from a frail resolve was the only audible sound I heard as we crouched in the water, quietly waiting to be picked up. Disappointing is hardly the word. Heartbreaking is more appropriate. I could see it in his face and weighing on his shoulders. Jerry and a number of other biologists have invested their lives protecting the Everglades through science and reason. Ever since restoration became a statewide conversation they have been Florida's most trusted voices. Now their throats are hoarse from screaming into deaf and often indifferent ears.

Friday, November 11, 2011

TRCP Media Summit

I'm just now catching up from a very hectic but satisfying month. I'm a little sleep deprived and a little overwhelmed right now, but that's good, it means there's lots to share from my little corner of the world.

TRCP board member Jim Martin speaks to guests at the Saltwater Media Summit

Hosting their first annual Saltwater Media Summit in Sarasota, FL at MOTE marine lab, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) invited me to attend as a member of their media team and to document the convention. For three days journalists, environmental writers, biologists, former lobbyists, and leading figures in the saltwater fishing community congregated to discuss the future of our fisheries and coasts. The shoot was to be pretty straightforward: afternoons filming indoors during presentations, evenings mixed with interviews and testimonials, and mornings filming backcountry fishing. By the end of the conference, TRCP wanted to be able to compile a video to release to potential attendees and sponsors for future events, so I would need to take both stills and video with enough footage to fill 4 minutes. Seems pretty easy, right? Well, if you're banking on two days of in-the-field video, which is the heart of the final product, and then you're suddenly only given ONE, you start to sweat a little.

Eric Schwabb, president of NOAA fisheries casts for ladyfish in the bay

TRCP decided to have this summit in Florida because our sunshine state has the largest fishing and boating industry in the US (17 billion dollars). We're a state that understands the importance of these businesses for our economy and we're trying to get it right. Fishing in Florida supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and steers the livelihoods of people from coast to coast. Fishing is a hot topic in the environmental community but the bottom line is that we need it, but we need to manage it properly. TRCP is helping by providing a network and platform for the marine scientists to converse with writers and the policy makers who affect change at the legislative and public levels.

Thursday morning I was scheduled to be in a boat fishing and filming with Whit Fosbourgh, president of TRCP and Guy Harvey, of, well, Guy Harvey. That is, until a rogue cold front sent straight from the devil himself shattered those chances with 30 mph winds. You can imagine how bummed I was. So instead, as a backup plan, MOTE marine lab offered us a tour of their aquaculture center.

A biologist at MOTE aquaculture center uses a sonogram to check a sleeping
sturgeon for eggs, while journalist Steve Waters looks on

I've been to many fish farms in the past, but they were only glorified holes in the ground that offered city-anglers the chance to catch their dinner. MOTE's facility was a fully self-sustaining laboratory that harvested sturgeon for caviar and filets. While I love to catch my own fish from the Atlantic, after three hours in their center, I started seeing this operation as a real solution to meeting market demands of threatened species or a slew of other fish for that matter.

Later on that evening the winds died down and we had a green light from the local fishing guides for our sunrise outing on Friday morning. Since this would be the meat of the final video, we decided to dedicate a chaser vessel strictly to bounce me around from boat to boat to get footage of as many anglers as possible. We had beautiful light and I was amazed at the diversity of fish that people were catching. One boat counted 12 species of fish in just three hours! If that doesn't speak to the productivity, diversity, and importance of Florida's waters, then I don't know what will.

In the three days at the summit I made some great connections and learned a lot about the necessary marriage between resource management and Florida's economy. I'm excited for the conversations that were sparked and even more thrilled about the actions that will follow. Spreading the word is what it's all about and I'm honored to be part of that movement.

TRCP board member Connie Parker and Bart Hudson, the president of the Florida House in 
Washington DC received two of my canvas prints as gifts for their support. 

Stay tuned for the video!

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Day with a Legend: Nathaniel Reed

Nathaniel Reed on Lake Okeechobee

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone more influential and active in Everglades restoration as Nathaniel Reed. He is a giant, both physically and legislatively for the conservation of Florida and even the world. He's known for serving under six governers, two presidents, and is partly responsible for such legislation as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Yeah, big time.

Expanses of spike rush are critical habitat for all sorts of aquatic fauna

Last week, it was one of my greatest privileges to share a boat with Nathaniel on assignment for Audubon Magazine. Guided by Paul Gray (left), another dominating figure in Everglades restoration, and FWC biologist Don Fox (right), we explored the marsh habitats of Lake Okeechobee.

A snail kite brings in an apple snail for lunch

These seasonally flooded grasslands are one of the main habitats for apple snails which are the sole diet for the snail kite, an endangered species. Recently, kite populations have been increasing and the bird community is buzzing. I felt so lucky to share the moment when Nathaniel watched a kite fly in and devour a snail right in front of the boat.

Ironically, I was shooting video for the magazine to run as a companion piece to their recent feature story on Everglades water issues written by Ted Williams. So I will let you know when that's ready to view online. Until then, I just wanted to share my excitement of spending an afternoon with one of Florida's true heroes.