Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Of Feet and Fine-Art

 "Dawn's Edge" - Florida Bay

When I was young, I liked to imagine my future self as a famous fine art nature photographer. I could see it perfectly. I'd wear Carhardt pants with deep red and green plaid shirts. I'd have a perpetual five o'clock shadow and salty disheveled hair, which I left unkempt even for television interviews. I would be lovable for my helpless indifference to the confines of fashion and uniformity of society. Driven with a sort of mad craze for inventing and revealing, I would consider all else secondary to the creative life. From my pockets, ideas scribbled on old receipts and napkins poured out as I fumbled for the keys of my beat-up truck. Empty coffee cups and junk food wrappers covered the floorboards demonstrating my hectic life was far overcrowded to make room for a thing like proper nutrition. This profound persona whose impetuous dedication to detail would avow itself in my exclusive black-tie biannual unveilings. Strewn all over my oak-paneled studio, small proofs of old prints (probably worth tens of thousands of dollars to collectors) radiated from, as if bowing in humble worship to a wall-sized limited edition of my latest masterpiece. Its depth and color would leave audiences breathless, contemplating their insignificance beneath the shadow of this immensely beautiful planet.

Boating on the emerald waters of Florida Bay

What a joke. I knew I could never grow facial hair. Actually, I struggled for a long time to divorce myself from this contrived artist I thought I wanted to be. Before that point, I even refused to photograph people because it didn't fit into the stuffy, fine-art box of my imagination. Without the context of people, however, I found that my stories were often incomplete. How would my readers get emotionally involved if they couldn't imagine themselves in my shoes? So I started making photos that shared a more personal and direct connection to the natural world, trying to engage the public at the most basic level. To put it bluntly, I began photographing my feet, in nature. 

Pulhaphanzak Waterfall in Honduras 

In this style, by virtually transplanting the viewer right into the frame I could share the experience of standing on the edge of a 150-foot waterfall or riding atop a speeding car. My parents disapproved, as the new images dissolved any ambiguity as to where I was during the often risky exposures. Not to mention my honest friends who declared that my offensive gnarly hobbit toes had no place in the public domain. For me, however, it was the ultimate way of providing emotional and physical context, giving it another dimension beyond the "look what I saw" or "Mac was here," images.  

Copies of The Drake and Audubon Naturalist magazines 

Surprisingly, despite the warnings from my friends, the public responded enthusiastically. Environmental organizations and magazine editors found these photos and started using them to promote their "get outside" campaigns. Even esteemed judges from international contests found the idea intriguing and unique while apathetically dismissing my fine art landscapes.

 Nuclear sunset cloud over Snake Bight in Everglades National Park

Today I have no qualms dancing on the line between what is considered fine-art and journalistic photography. They are equally important tools for telling a story. I now realize my goal isn't just to attract people to an upscale gallery in downtown, but to inspire them to get outside and beyond the city limits. If they can put themselves in my shoes or sandals, even for a brief moment, then I've effectively shifted the subject from the photographer to viewer. This is the crux; the thing all artists want from their audience: a personal connection. Now it's not merely proof of an encounter with nature, but an invitation, which feels more like "Mac was here... and you can be too." And that's what it's all about. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Roseate Spoonbill Chicks

Two roseate spoonbill chicks with a third one about to break through its shell. Spoonbills, unlike flamingos, are pink at birth. 

The spoonbills are well on their way to creating the new generation of wading birds to call Florida Bay home. I've been scouring almost every single island from the Keys out to Cape Sable in search of colonies. What I'm finding are an array of breeding pairs that are inhabiting keys where we never expected to find them. Last week as I peered into one of the nests I watched a chick peck its way through the egg as its two older siblings clamored about. It was one of those moments where I felt extremely proud to be an Audubon employee. I couldn't help but laugh though, when thinking about the misfortune of being given, of all things, a spoon to break your way out of a windowless cage. The egrets and herons have it far easier.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Murder of Crows

Two crows attack an osprey nest off the coast of Flamingo 

As if the Everglades didn't have it tough enough with restricted water flows and enormous invasive pythons, an additional assailant has found refuge in the park. The American crow, whose call can be heard from Cape Sable to Flamingo arrived with the influx of visitors who leave their food unattended and car doors open. Unsatisfied with the scraps of tourists, they have moved on to finer dining. On the islands close to mainland, spoonbills and reddish egret nests are pillaged by roving gangs of crows leaving only hollowed eggs and bloody carcasses. Suspected to attack only when the parents are off the nest, Audubon has coordinated with Everglades National Park to close several channels that pass through sensitive nesting areas for this very reason. I was surprised then, when I witnessed two crows attacking an osprey nest as the mother stood guard over her clutch. They pecked, squawked, and surrounded her for 20 minutes until giving up, probably to return the following day for another fight. If they are this bold with a sharp-beaked and razor-taloned osprey, how would they fair against an unassuming pink spoonbill?

Two spoonbill eggs eaten by crows. Photo by Adam Chasey

I've already found at least 6 nests ravaged by crows, and if the problem persists, it could just be enough to force a colony to abandon their young. Not too long ago a burmese python was spotted swimming in Florida Bay, probably on its way to one of the mangrove islands. Imagine if a 10-foot python descended on a wading bird rookery. At this rate, maybe it's only a matter of time. Do we really need to love all creatures equally?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Send Off: Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Just before Carlton pushes off for the first day of his expedition, he and I pose for a photo on Florida Bay

This morning Jerry Lorenz and I drove out to Flamingo in Everglades National Park to send off a friend and fellow conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr. who embarked on a 1,000 mile expedition. This adventure is known as the Florida Wildlife Corridor and will help to lay the foundation of a conservation initiative linking critical fragmented landscapes. It's an extremely bold task and I'm so upset I can't go with him. Joining Carlton, is filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, and bear biologist Joe Gutherie, two brave souls who say they're "in it to win it." Carlton's expedition will meet up with artists and paddlers all over Florida as they make their way north. I'm planning on meeting them on the 24th while accompanying the Arthur Marshall Foundation who are on their own paddling expedition to show the importance of our waterways in south Florida. First, though he'll have a hearty paddle up to Avocado Creek and then a rough slog atop jagged limestone through miles of sawgrass in Shark Slough. When I said goodbye to Carlton and his crew today, he said, "I'll see see you in a few days!" With a nervous tone I replied, "Yeah, I hope so..."

State director of research Jerry Lorenz speaks on behalf of Audubon Florida about the importance of Florida Wildlife Corridor at the edge of Florida Bay. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Winter, By Any Other Name...

Adam Chasey climbs a palm tree in Key Largo to retrieve a coconut for his dog River  

No one takes our winters seriously. Here we are, having to put on jeans and fleeces and I get no sympathy from my northern friends. It's rough I tell you. My brother, Will, visiting from North Carolina for the weekend couldn't believe we spent all day in swim suits and tank tops while lounging at a bayside park in the middle of January. While the rest of the country is bundling up and tucking their cold feet into the cracks of a warm couch, we're firing up the grill and chasing sunsets. Two days ago I watched an excited couple walk through the neighborhood carrying a bottle of wine and a full couch to the end of a boardwalk in Key Largo. What a crazy thing. People scoff, saying, "Pshh, you have no seasons," in a tone that sounds more like, "You have no soul," but I'm okay with that. They can keep their gray skies and icy roads. I'll stay down here with the other lost sun-kissed souls. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Price of Science

Unknown fish species, found off Curacao this past December

In 1997 Dr. Grant Gilmore, a marine biologist, captured an unidentified fish off the coast of Cuba. The scientific community had never documented this species before. In order to be designated a new species, however, he needed two samples. Hopeful, he kept his ear to the ground waiting for someone to find his missing paratype. Fourteen years later, this December he received word from a commercial fish collector based in the Keys who captured an unknown species matching the description of his original holotype. Unfortunately he wasn't the only one in the market for rare fish. Collectors all over the world also seek out coastal businesses and divers to purchase unique species for their aquariums, and they're willing to pay top dollar. Dr Gilmore knew he didn't have long before it disappeared into a private collection so he called Dr Jerry Lorenz to help document its existence. That same day, a Japanese aquarist purchased the 3-inch fish for $4,500. This gave us a two-day window to make a positive id. 

Helping hands make sure the fish doesn't leap out of the make-shift tank

The next morning Jerry, his wife Linda, and I traveled to Marathon and spent twenty minutes photographing a very stressed fish. Pulled from 400 feet below the water's surface, its colors changed dramatically since original capture making it impossible for Dr Gilmore to confirm it as a paratype without closer inspection; a sad loss for science. The fish now swims in a private aquarium in Japan and poses an important question about the relationship between science and its stakeholders. 

The free market has subsidized countless scientific revolutions over the last century. By placing a value on discovery, the researchers, explorers, and biologists of the world can afford to dedicate their lives to opening new doors and expanding our knowledge of the living world. Scientists depend on the funding from investors to conduct their research, just as fish collectors depend on buyers to finance their operational costs. In this fiscal marriage, it seems inevitable that the two will eventually quarrel. What happens then, when the cold heart of capitalism starts steering the altruism of science? Should the same laws that govern supply and demand be allowed to creep their way into the scientific method? 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Lost and Found

Florida Bay mangrove islands with the Gulf Stream clouds and Florida Keys in the background.

I love watching adventure shows where the protagonist drops in on an island and must use his immediate resources to survive or escape. I'm always skeptical too, of the serendipity that Bear Grylls just happens to find a 30 foot rope, a lighter, or gallon jugs half-filled with potable water washed up on the shores. Surely, the producers must have planted some of that stuff before filming. I held this skepticism until I started exploring the islands in Florida Bay for our spoonbill research with Audubon. Now, I find myself eager to go to work if not just for the spoonbills but also because I never know what I'll find while walking through mangrove tangles or kayaking along the mud flats.

Mangrove prop roots act as nets trapping all matter of floating debris.

The most common things I find are colorful stone crab buoys which at a distance have fooled me to believing there were flamingos in the central bay. I have also started a collection of drink cozies with faded tackle shop labels. Antique bottles are a great treasure to find and I have a couple that date back a century. There's no shortage of homeless sandals either. Crocs brand are the most common, and if anyone needs a size 9, 10, or 12, then I have you covered. Why is it always the left shoe that people lose?

A boat enters into Trout Creek in the northeastern Bay. 

It's no surprise really. With all the boaters, residents, and visitors to the Keys and Everglades a few things are bound to arrive on the islands of this 850 square-mile wilderness. For years the Everglades was renowned for its lawless backcountry allowing drug smugglers a perfect location for trafficking. Veteran fishing guides who wish to remain nameless, muse on the days of their biggest catches, landing large "square groupers," caught in the tidal flats which would fetch $200,000 at market price.

While contraband busts rarely run the headlines, the Everglades remains vast and largely unpatrolled by park officials. Just last week, while exploring an island in the northwest Bay, I saw something strange washed up on a sandy beach.

A homemade Cuban life raft washed up on the shore of an island in the northwest Bay.

A blue vessel, made of canvas stretched over two large tire inner tubes with oar-locks, and a heavy plastic keel, sat abandoned at the high tide line. At closer inspection, inside the cockpits were cans of tuna, varying flavors of soda, and a couple of sweaters. Although the labels slightly worn, I could tell immediately where this raft came from. It's incredible to think two people floated in open ocean aboard this backyard-assembled dinghy.  Being only 90 miles from Cuba, Florida Bay is really the perfect destination for refugees. I just hope they didn't get too antsy and try to swim the remaining 5 miles to mainland through the shark and croc-infested water. For a moment, I looked up, scared to find the stranded sailors watching me from the trees, but at this point they were long gone.

A 14 foot American crocodile suns on the banks of Cape Sable in Florida Bay.

I may not be Bear Grylls, but I'd like to think that if I were to be stranded on one of these islands, I'd be able to survive just fine. With my luck, I'd just hop on the next abandoned life raft and paddle safely to shore, gorging on canned tuna and orange soda.