Blue Beyond Borders – A Hurricane Sandy Benefit
By Allie Wilkinson. First published by Oh, For The Love Of Science!, December 12, 2012
SATURDAY night I attended “Blue Beyond Borders – Sea Change Through Science and Art”, a Hurricane Sandy Fundraiser for the New York Aquarium. The aquarium is located along the boardwalk in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and is home to 12,000 marine critters. It also happens to be where I had my 8th birthday party. The New York Aquarium is full of many memories for me – from going behind the scenes and feeding the fish at my birthday party, to being spit on by a walrus.
The event pulled together an all-star team of writers, photographers, artists and scientists to discuss our freshwater resources, marine issues, and climate change. The night kicked off with Alison Jones, conservation photographer and director of No Water No Life. Jones’ work spans North America and Africa, where she uses the power of photography to share the degradation of our planet’s freshwater resources. But perhaps the most powerful portion of her presentation was when she said, “Closing your eyes and ignoring the consequences of climate change down the road is a bit like having unprotected sex.” Fortunately though, she points out that it is too late to be a pessimist.
Next up was award-winning author Paul Greenberg, who has “gone bivalve” as he proclaimed. (This is where I immediately decided I really like Greenberg.) Oysters were on the menu, figuratively speaking, as Greenberg shared an image of the typical oyster display served in a restaurant. “And at 12 o’clock we have your Baywater Sweets, and down at 3 o’clock you’ll find your Connecticut Blue Points.” But once upon a time, those same clock markers indicated local areas where oysters were grown – 12 o’clock being your upper Hudson oysters, and 3 o’clock representing your East River oysters. (Honestly, can you think of eating anything that comes out of the East River nowadays? Yuck!) But we ate them out of existence, crushed them up for roadways, burned them down for lime, and we took over their habitat in an effort to build out lower Manhattan.
Not only did we lose our ability to eat locally, but we lost a vital line of defense from storms. If you look at projected sea level rise maps for the New York metro area, you will notice many of the areas that will be underwater are the same ones we dredged up.
A few efforts are in place for test-reefs, but these are for protection and not for eating; so government officials fear that unwitting citizens may poach the oysters and eat them. Greenberg had a very timely op-ed in the New York Times called An Oyster in the Storm, that goes into this in greater detail.
The next two panelists brought visual treats. First came Anne Doubilet, an underwater photographer who has worked with National Geographic Magazine on 34 stories about the seas. Her “corals and ice” panels are absolutely incredible, each one pairing an image of a massive iceberg with an up-close shot of a coral polyp. The juxtaposition of large and small, cool tones and warm tones, is just breathtaking. (Seriously, go check them out.) But Doubilet’s talk wasn’t just pretty pictures – she drove home a powerful point in telling us that by the time her daughter was old enough to go diving at her favorite dive site, the corals were all dead. Yet another reminder of climate change and the toll it is taking on coral reefs. Next up was the inimitable force of nature that is Asher Jay. Similar to how I felt about Greenberg, I almost instantaneously decided I was a fan of Jay. Perhaps because she described herself as a connector, a role I see myself in as a science communicator. Or perhaps because she is driven, passionate, creative, and has this frenetic energy about her. It would have been nearly impossible to not be inspired by Jay as she spoke. A fashion designer turned activist, Jay circled back to her roots as an ocean lover after the 2010 BP oil spill. She went down to DC and attended every conference, meeting and event imaginable, stalking down the big names in marine science and adding to her arsenal of ocean heroes. She’s the force of nature who put the whole event together, and lined up the amazing roster of panelists. Her projects, Garbagea and Sea Speak Sphere, raise awareness about ocean issues. To commemorate World Oceans Day, Jay painted plastic bottles inspired by 100 “Ocean Voices” – people whose careers span science, filmmaking, photography, writing, activism, and more. I was so inspired that I spent part of Sunday drawing and painting, something I haven’t done in many, many years.
David Guggenheim, a marine scientist also known as the Ocean Doctor, spoke about his work in Cuba over the last 12 years. Cuba is home to Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), what is considered to be the healthiest reef in the Caribbean. You may have seen Guggenheim and Jardines de la Reina during Anderson Cooper’s segment on 60 minutes. But not all corals are in such great shape. Elkhorn coral is 95 percent extinct in the Caribbean, and if you took all of the remaining corals in the world, they would fit into an area the size of Texas. It reminded me of just how much change I’ve seen in coral reefs in the 15 years that I’ve been snorkeling and diving. Similar to Doubilet’s talk, Guggenheim took us from the tropics to the poles, as he shared the video of a mother walrus with her offspring. “We need to inspire as well as inform,” said Guggenheim.
One of Guggenheim’s closing comments really resonated with me. “The debate we are having about climate change isn’t based on facts, it’s based on emotions,” he said. In America, climate change has become a highly divided, heavily politicized issue. And the fact is, it shouldn’t be – over 99 percent of the scientific literature published since 1991 recognizes human activity as the cause of global warming.
The night drew to a close with a performance by Andy Revkin and David Rothenberg, and their rendition of Lord Franklin’s Lament. As Revkin wrote in a blog post, “The song tells the tragic tale of John Franklin, the famed British sea captain and adventurer who vanished after setting out in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage – with that vanishing triggering an astonishing burst of British and American Arctic exploration aimed at least in part at finding him and his crew.”
The new version features two new verses [to] bring the song into this new age of melting ice and opening seaways:
Two hundred years since his ship went down
The ocean rises over Franklin’s ground.
The planet warms, ice melts away.
The Northwest Passage flows clear as day.
Ships and whales now pass by the pole.
Soon mighty trees will grow in Arctic soil.
Warming winds thaw frozen ground.
Soon polar bears may go where Franklin’s bound.
For those who stayed behind to keep their eyes on the silent auction bids, a virtual message also came in from Jeff Orlowski, the director of Chasing Ice.
The event was a huge success, with over 110 in attendance, and many other members of the New York and ocean communities chipping in to donate their time, goods and services. Sponsors of the event include Flatiron Wines and Spirits, Gramercy Wine Cellars, West 3rd Common, City Bakery, L.A. Burdick, Milk and Cookies, Susty Party and private chefs Molly Baz and Alexis Krisel; and many of evening’s panelists, as well as others such as David Helvarg, Louis Psyihoyos and Richard Ellis, donated items for the silent auction. (I snagged a steampunk shark sculpture by Claudio Garzon and a signed DVD of The Cove.)
The benefit raised over $4,500 and counting, and checks are still being mailed in. But the aquarium is in for a long haul in getting back to business as usual. Consultants need to come in and draw up plans to ensure the aquarium is better protected in the future, budgets need to be drawn up, and then comes the arduous task of the repairs themselves. So consider helping them out by making a donation.