A Vision of Abundance

Alexandra Cousteau

Alexandra Cousteau

Like many baby boomers, I could be found on Sunday evenings in the 1970s, cozied up to the television, watching a gnarly red-capped Frenchman exploring the depths of the ocean. The opening music to “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” — full of violins and trumpets, with a playful xylophone riff — conveyed a sense of adventure and wonder that was unmatched by any other television show at the time.

The series inspired me to pursue a career as a marine biologist. Although that did not come to pass, I write about aquatic science, which is just about as good.

Like many young girls who watched the program, I had a crush on Cousteau’s son, Philippe. His other son, Jean-Michel, was okay, but Philippe – oooh la la! I was devastated when he died in an aircraft crash. And I thought Calypso crewman Falco had the coolest name.

Even as a poor college student, I donated money to the Cousteau Society and followed their adventures after the television show no longer aired.

So it was inevitable that I attended a talk last week by Philippe’s daughter, Alexandra. She was the keynote speaker at a celebration in Superior, Wisconsin, for the Lake Superior Research Institute.

The leggy blonde, whose mother was a model, is coming into her own as an icon for water issues. She founded a water organization, called Blue Legacy International, and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer.

Her talk centered on the theme of the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water for a healthy planet. However, Cousteau doesn’t like the word “sustainable.” She thinks that to most people, it means they must sacrifice something to achieve it, and that what is achieved is only marginal, not like things were before environmental problems happened.

The status of the oceans before humans started impacting it was one of abundance – huge schools of fish, giant pods of dolphins, a bay covered with oysters. Cousteau argued that we should have a vision of abundance instead of one of meager sustainability. It’s something people can be more enthused about and it’s an easier concept to imagine.

Given the realities of human abundance on the planet, this may be a pipe dream. But what a happy pipe dream!

Cousteau also thinks we focus too much on the environmental problems that exist and not on the vision we want to achieve. She gave the example of a tip from her downhill ski instructor, who told her not to look at the trees while she was skiing. “Because that’s where you’ll end up.” He advised her to focus instead on where she wanted to go.

Since I had just listened to a talk about sustainability by Andrew Revkin, I found Cousteau’s concept of abundance intriguing. I think those two should get together and compare notes, if they haven’t already!

I didn’t have my notebook with me, so am writing this all from memory. Two other things that struck me were her story about a child who was banned from watching the Cousteau TV show, and her story about how she learned scuba diving from her grandfather, Jacques.

Cousteau said that people usually gush about her grandfather’s television show (much like I did at the beginning of this post). But a man who attended one of her talks said he would get too excited by impending peril in the underwater adventures. When Cousteau would enter a cave filled with sharks, the boy would jump up and down on the couch, yelling at the divers not to go into the cave. He’d end up hyperventilating every episode until his parents took matters in hand and banned him from watching the show. Funny!

Cousteau said she learned how to swim before she could walk. At age seven, Jacques decided she was old enough to learn how to scuba dive (a technology he invented). As she sat on the edge of the boat, getting used to the regulator in her mouth and the gear on her body, she decided she didn’t like it. She was about to tell Jacques that she didn’t want to do it when he gave her a little push, and into the water she went. The undersea world has captivated her ever since.

Cousteau’s talk ended with a question and answer session. One of the last questions came from a tearful fifteen-year-old. She said that the students in her high school were all pessimistic and hopeless about the environment. She wanted to know how to offer them hope.

After taking a moment to compose herself, Cousteau, who was tearing up too, offered stories about things that are making the environment better. But perhaps, sensing the inadequacy of this in the light of teenage angst, offered to continue the conversation with the girl through her web site.

By now, most of the crowd was wiping away tears, including the director of the Lake Superior Research Institute, who closed the session in a choked voice.

Like her grandfather, this Cousteau has the ability to move people with her storytelling. I hope she inspires a whole ‘nother army of marine biologists and aquatic scientists. And a whole bunch of people who can tell the story of the environment, showing us where to go without crashing into the trees along the way.

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Hope for Sea Grant

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The Mexico–United States barrier at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA. The crosses represent migrants who died in the crossing attempt. Some identified, some not. Image credit: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The federal funding situation is looking up for the provider of my livelihood, despite President Trump’s wishes. As you may recall from a previous post, I work as a writer for a state branch of the National Sea Grant College Program. Basically, Sea Grant provides federal money to university researchers to explore and protect our oceans, lakes, and rivers.

My job is to explain what the researchers find to the taxpayers who fund the program. (Which is most of you who are reading this.) I do this through storytelling, and my stories are published on our program’s website, blog, newsletter, news releases, etc.

President Trump proposed drastic cuts to the rest of our 2017 budget, and he zeroed out the program in his proposed 2018 budget to Congress. He thinks the money spent on our program would serve the country better if it went toward building a wall along the entire Mexican border.

Sea Grant’s 2017 budget was spared because Trump agreed to delay his push for wall money until the 2018 budget battle. Congress passed a continuing resolution for 2017, meaning that our funding remained steady. Thus, I still have my job!

I am very thankful for that, and very thankful for all the support I’ve heard for the program from my federal representatives, community, friends, and fellow bloggers.

Preparations for the 2018 federal budget have begun, and I have good news to report on that front, also. At the end of June, a House of Representatives subcommittee met to develop their version of the budget for the departments of Justice, Science, and Commerce (of which Sea Grant is a part). Their budget bill keeps Sea Grant’s funding at its current level.

According to the director of my program, who is ‘in the know’ about such things, this is a big deal because the House is typically the group that lowers budgets. Their rejection of the President’s recommendation to zero out our program is a crucial first step in the 2018 budget process.

The budget process isn’t over yet, but this news made all of us Sea Granters breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy celebrating the nation during the recent 4th of July weekend a lot more. It’s good to know that at least part of the government supports the work we do, even if the leader of the nation doesn’t.

Onward!

Attack of the Killer Turkeys

Today I meandered over to a gathering at the home of some friends who live in the woods outside of town. I had been to their house before, but this time was different. Instead of my friends meeting me once I got out of my car, I was met by some wild turkeys. Two toms and a hen walked up to my driver’s door before I could get out. The toms were both displaying in an aggressive manner and the hen pecked the ground a few feet away.

It unnerved me that the turkeys knew which car door I would exit. “This can’t be good,” I thought. After futilely waiting a few minutes for them to budge, I decided on an alternate exit strategy. I clambered over the stick shift console and went out the passenger door.

20170507_104836The turkeys immediately spotted me and followed. I walked faster. They walked faster. Soon I was running for my life to the house door. Just in time, my friend opened the door. She deterred the turkeys with a big stick and ushered me quickly into the house. I swear the turkeys would have followed me right inside, had it not been for that stick.

She apologized for the turkeys, saying they “just showed up” about a month ago. Although the turkeys live in the woods, they are obviously imprinted on people for food.

Despite trying several methods, the only way my friends have found to deal with them is to carry sticks whenever they go out. My friends say the turkeys also stand at their sliding glass doors and watch them while they watch television. Creepy!

As others arrived for the gathering, our main source of entertainment was watching their various reactions to the attack turkeys. Most people got off easier than I did because my friends made it out there sooner with their sticks.

Once I eventually left, the turkeys chased my car the whole way down the long driveway, as if getting back at me for my earlier escape. They kept at it until I was able to leave them in a cloud of dust on the main road.

Wild turkeys have been in the news lately because they are becoming more common in northern Minnesota. People are wondering if the department of natural resources (DNR) has stocked them or something. Nope, says the department.

In my travels between the southern and northern parts of Minnesota over the years, I have noticed turkeys along the highway. Every year, they are farther north. (Opossums are coming, too. Yuk!) I guess it was just a matter of time before they reached my friends’ yard.

The DNR calls the turkeys’ range expansion “one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories.” Last year, the DNR expanded the turkey hunt to include all of northeastern Minnesota. The spring season is open from now until May 31.

Turkey hunters, if you are having trouble finding your prey, I know where a couple are. Just ask. 🙂

Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)

Wi Point Ladies 2016 003We interrupt all these dreams of Aruba to insert some harsh (but hopefully entertaining and educational) reality. You may recall from my recent pancake recipe posting that President Trump has zeroed out the National Sea Grant Program that I work for in his proposed budget for 2018.

If that weren’t worrisome enough, he just recently he proposed drastic cuts to Sea Grant and other environmental and health and human services programs in 2017 in order to find funds to build the wall between Mexico and the U.S. You remember his beloved wall, don’t you? The one that Mexico was supposed to pay for (and like it)?

If Congress grants his request, Sea Grant would be gone – maybe as soon as May or August of this year, and I will be out of a job.

Maybe you’re wondering what a “Sea Grant” is. Sea Grant is a kick-ass program that funnels federal money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to universities in 33 states across the U.S. The money goes to university researchers for water studies and to people like me who let taxpayers know about the research results through the media and through other local communications outlets.

Our staff and researchers also develop tools that people can use for things like growing fish, protecting their towns from a messed-up climate, keeping invasive animals and plants out of their local lake, fixing up polluted swimming beaches, making seafood safe to eat and water safe to drink.

UWI_SeaGrant_logo_cyanI work as a writer for the Sea Grant program in Wisconsin. Why is there an ocean program in Wisconsin, you ask? Because the Great Lakes are the freshwater equivalent of oceans (Sweetwater Seas). As water sources for millions of people and home to one of the world’s largest economies, it makes sense to pay attention to the Great Lakes and to put money into understanding them and protecting them.

Nationally, Sea Grant has been around for over fifty years. The federal dollars ($67.3 million) that come into the states are matched by the universities.

One reason it’s a kick-ass program is that in 2015 alone, the work done nationally with these dollars led to an 854% economic return on investment (Turned $67.3 million into $575 million in the communities in which we work). I bet none of President Trump’s business ventures have provided such a huge impact. Seems like a bad idea to cut such a successful program.

We’ve restored over 127,000 acres of degraded ecosystems. We trained almost 2,000 people how to keep seafood safe to eat. We offered about 900 classes to people living on coastlines on how to improve their community’s resilience to storms. We also supported training and funding for 2,000 students who are the next generation of water scientists.

In Wisconsin alone, our programs save lives. Our Sea Caves Watch program, which warns kayakers about wave conditions in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has prevented deaths. Since it went online about seven years ago, no deaths have happened. Before, there was about one death every year. Seven people might not seem like a lot – but every person counts!

Last year, a boater who saw our video about “ghost nets” (abandoned nets lost in the lake) and how to get out of them without capsizing, remembered what the video said when his boat got into a tangle. He credits Wisconsin Sea Grant for saving his life.

In Wisconsin, we also fund a program that helps children who are going through rough times by getting them into the water and taking pictures. The underwater photography program has changed the lives of many of them, and their photos are good enough to be in public displays and even a book. Read the children’s testimonials in the book. They will make you cry!

We find cures to fish diseases. We created over 5,000 jobs during the past two years. We helped almost 12,000 anglers or aquaculture people. We helped find out what was causing the steel pilings in the Duluth-Superior Harbor to corrode (and won a national award for it). Through our sister program, the Water Resources Institute, we are changing how the state warns people about the chemical strontium in their drinking water.

If I lose my job, I can’t take any more nice vacations and write about them for your benefit. I also will be so busy finding a job that I won’t be able to write my blog any more, or my fiction.

So, if you give a rip, please email your Congressperson right away. Tell them to reject the Administration’s proposal in the Fiscal Year 2017 Security Supplemental that would cut the National Sea Grant College Program by $30 million. Also, please ask them to reject the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 proposal to zero out and terminate the Sea Grant program (for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned).

I had an interesting discussion with someone at my church about President Trump. She said she was finding it very hard to love him in a spiritual sort of way. I told her that I don’t like what Trump stands for, but I do like that he’s making us fight for what’s important. It’s definitely not politics as usual.

The only weapons I have to fight this with are my words. I hope you will join your words with mine to preserve a program that makes much more sense for this country than a wall with Mexico. For more information, please see the Sea Grant Association’s website (FY 2017 and FY 2018 documents).

Thank you for your support. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Aruban Dreams (Part 3) – Beaches and Butterflies

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Tourists ponder pelicans upon pilings, Druif Beach in Aruba.

My friend and I eventually came out of the caves in Aruba and into the sunlight. The first beach we saw was just outside our resort.

Used to the rootbeer-brown waters of northern Minnesota, my immediate reaction to Druif Beach/Divi Beach was to laugh at the impossibly white sugar sand and the turquoise water. I felt like I was walking through the living embodiment of a Caribbean travel magazine advertisement.

Druif/Divi Beach is in the low-rise resort part of the island, up the coast from Oranjestad, the capitol of Aruba. We spent a couple of afternoons and evenings on these beaches, which were a short walk from our resort condo.

Besides the ridiculously gorgeous scenery, the nice thing about this and the other beaches in this post is that you don’t have to fight for a spot under a cabana like you do at some resorts. No need to wake up at 6 a.m. and reserve beach chairs. We usually didn’t drag ourselves out of bed until 8 or 9 a.m., and often didn’t get to the beach until the early afternoon. We were always able to find either a cabana or a shady spot under a tree. Granted, the cabana might not have been the closest to the water, but it was nice not to have to strategize relaxation. This is a VACATION, after all.

Two drawbacks of Druif/Divi Beach are that it’s right near the roadway, and the scenery is marred by offshore oil platforms. Car motors compete with the sound of lapping waves. Baby Beach and Eagle Beach don’t have these problems.

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Baby Beach wide-angle view.

Baby Beach is in a large cove on the southeast end of the island. The shallow waters and protection of the cove make it perfect for young children for swimming. It’s also great for snorkeling, although you have to swim out a ways to the rocky cove walls to find the fish.

One word of caution: bring your wallet with you (not into the water, though!) If you need to use the restroom, it costs $1. You also might want to spend money at the bar/restaurant and the beach equipment rental place.

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Eagle Beach

Our last morning on the island was spent at Eagle Beach, just up the coast from Druif/Divi Beach. We were not disappointed by this decision. Eagle Beach is rated consistently high in polls of beachgoers in the world and in the Caribbean.

The beach is wide and the road is far away. There are plenty of cabanas for shade. The water is so clear, it hurts the eyes. And there’s not a rock to be found. I suppose all that nice white sand is like an underwater desert for marine life, but at least humans NEVER have to worry about stubbing toes or stepping on a sea urchin.

Just like a tanning bed fan, the prevailing winds keep you cool and keep any bugs away. (No damn biting sand flies like in Minnesota). There are Zika mosquitoes in Aruba, but we never saw even one because of the wind.

Another activity for nature-lovers in Aruba is the Butterfly Farm — housed in a low-slung building across from the high-rise resort district. Lush greenery, flowers and butterflies will fill your senses. Knowledgeable guides give tours and can explain all the different butterfly types and life stages. I also went to a butterfly farm on the island of St. Martin, and the guides in Aruba were even better.

Bonus: your entrance fee is good for an entire week, so you can visit more than once if you want. The farm opens early in the morning sometimes for people who want to see the chrysalises hatch. The time was too early for me to rise during VACATION, but I was tempted. I bet it’s inspirational.

Up next in part 4: Getting personal with underwater sea life on DePalm Island Resort.

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Aruban Dreams (Part 1)

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Conchi Natural Pool, Aruba.

A friend and I meandered down much closer to the equator last week to the Dutch isle of Aruba. The trip was my New Year’s Resolution and a chance to indulge my isle-o-philia. All I can say is that if every resolution was this amazing to fulfill, more people would make good on them instead of pooping out three weeks into the New Year. Enough of resolutions to lose weight or exercise more. Bah! People should make pleasurable and dreamy resolutions instead. Remember that for next year.

Our first island adventure was the most perilous undertaking of our week-long trip. We decided to visit the island’s one national park (Arikok National Park) to explore a natural ocean pool and then some caves.

The pool was our first destination. It’s located on the coastline, formed by a ring of high rocks that keep out the waves. Periodically, a wave overtops the rocks and fills the pool with more water. It’s known for good snorkeling, and an upper pool flows into the main pool via a small waterfall. Most people travel there by reserving a Jeep or 4×4 ATV. My friend and I? We decided to walk.

I had read somewhere that it only took a half-hour to hike from the park entrance to the pool. My friend and I didn’t need no stinkin’ 4×4 to get us there. That’s what feet are for. Besides, we wanted to get a feel for what the island is really like.

Heh heh. What the island is like is a desert. Hot. With no shade from the equatorial sun. And there are rattlesnakes. But I am getting ahead of myself.

At the park visitor center the attendant told us it actually takes an hour-and-a-half to hike to the pool. (I figured out later that the info I had read started from a different location – the Shete Entrance.) Plus, we would be walking up a 600-foot mountain on the way there.

My friend and I looked at each other, a bit taken aback. But we are healthy 50-something-year-olds from Minnesota. Above average, and all that. We decided we could do it. We were wearing athletic shoes and sunscreen. Our water bottles were full. We were ready to roll.

Then he told us the pool was closed due to high waves.

My friend and I looked at each other again. This was a more serious setback. But we decided we had come this far, we might as well go see the pool. I encouraged my friend to still bring her swimsuit, just in case conditions were really better at the pool than the attendant thought.

Off among the cacti we went. Unlike what the park map shows, there is no separate hiking trail from the Jeep trail, so we had to make way for all the lazy people who opted for motors. Almost all of them stopped and asked us if we were okay, subtly gloating that they were riding and we were walking. We assured them we were fine. We smiled and waved them on their way.

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The “trail” to the pool.

Halfway up the mountain we met a family on their way down. The top of the mountain was as far as they got, and they decided that was enough. Especially after they saw the rattlesnakes (one was alive and rattling a warning four feet away from the family’s mom, the other was dead in the road).

I could feel my friend looking at me questioningly again, but I ignored her, determined not to let a few rattlesnakes deter us.

The view from the top of the mountain was great. It was easy to see how necessary the park is for preserving wild natural space on the 20-mile-long island – houses crowded everywhere but within the park’s borders.

The rest of the trail followed a sloping plateau and then made a steep drop to the ocean. Soon, we were able to see our destination, which made the rest of the hike easier — plus the fact that no rattlesnakes crossed our path.

As we neared the steps leading down to the pool, we could clearly see people swimming in it. Yes, waves were overtopping the protective rocks and washing into the pool, but it didn’t look like a life-threatening situation.

DSC03890My friend and I changed into our suits, thankful that we brought them and that we’d soon be going for a swim. We clambered over the rocks and slid down an algae-covered formation into the pool with half a dozen other people.

It was heaven, punctuated by anxious moments when a wave would wash into the pool. My friend got thrown around a bit by one wave, but I was luckier.

While we were swimming, my mind jumped ahead to the hike back out. I wasn’t looking forward to spending another hour-plus tromping through the desert. All my foot-powered bravado seemed to melt away into the sea. When one of our poolmates mentioned to us that he and his girlfriend had a Jeep with room for two more, I was the first to take him up on the offer.

My friend looked at me again, this time in thankful wonderment. I suspect she couldn’t believe that I changed my mind about the whole foot-powered thing. But heck, we were on vacation, not a forced death march.

So thank you, Bobbie and Samantha from New Jersey, for driving us back out to our car. Along the way, we saw another duo of women walking, and of course, we felt sorry for them. We joked that we should stop and ask them if they were okay.