Monday, May 26, 2014

Update on Richard Theiss: new perceptions on life and the world we live in

I have many friends and colleagues, both in life and in the digital world, inquiring as to what I have been up to, as I have not been as visible of late.  I've had some life-altering experiences over the past 6 months that took me away from participation in many of my ocean conservation interests.  But now I would like to slowly begin to return to "active duty" at least in the writing/blogging arena.

In December of 2013, I was diagnosed with advanced Stage IV Melanoma cancer.  It seems my activities as a diver and cinematographer kept my body in good enough shape (for someone in his early 60s) that the cancer, which had been growing for probably four to five years, went undetected until a couple of tumors appeared on the skin's surface and further tests revealed cancer throughout my body.  Ironic that my healthy constitution which resisted the cancer up to that point also allowed the cancer to rage hidden from view for years.

[Lesson #1: As a fair-skinned Southern California native from a time that predated sunscreens (in fact it was called sun tan oil, designed to help fry your skin a golden brown), I and others in my generation all went through our sunburns and various skin damage that we then pay for decades later.  So, use your sunscreens, everyone.] 

So, with my newly discovered challenge, I retreated from film production work and most of my ocean and shark conservation activities - blogging, posting, speaking engagements - to focus on treatment and see how life was to play itself out over the next few months and years.  When given an incurable and terminal prognosis as I have, it's interesting as to how your perspective on the quality of life changes.

For some people, it triggers a rush for the "bucket list" and the desire to do all the things you ever wanted to do but never got around to it. But for me, being a reflective person, I chose to look back on many of the incredible experiences I have had in my life and varied careers and it has brought me a great measure of satisfaction.  From rock bands to writing and conducting music scores for wildly unmemorable low-budget films, to traveling the world providing film and video services for commercials and motion pictures, to all my diving experiences, and the honor - as a small fish (pardon the pun) in a big pond - of meeting and/or working with dedicated ocean conservationists from eco-celebs like Dr. Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau to scientists like Dr. Gregory Stone of Conservation International, photographer Brian Skerry, and many, many others to whom I must apologize for not listing here.  It's been an amazing run.

So, what's next?  Well, as conditions permit, I will continue to dive - albeit minus the 50-pound camera rig (hey, a bonus!) - and I will still do some media/marketing consulting.  And I am going to try posting more on this blog.  The RTSeaBlog had a readership of about 25K hits per month at its peak, but then started to taper off as more and more people were posting links to various articles on sites like Facebook or Twitter.  What concerns me with social media today is the information overload, often reduced to a mere 140 characters, that doesn't necessarily lend itself to thoughtful introspection and contemplation.  Even the main stream media is hooked on what's trending at the moment via some hash tag or "liked" video.

For me, ocean conservation and climate change are too broad and complex of subjects to get reduced to simple sound bites.  And that is so unfortunate because it allows today's media to short change the importance of the environmental long-term effects that will impact future generations.  And both proponents and opponents of an issue try to use that to their advantage.  The human race seems to have an innate difficulty in grasping complex long-term issues and preferring, instead, on silver bullet solutions that can provide immediate personal benefit.

Well, before I rant any further, I will close and keep further observations for future blog posts.  My sincere thanks to all of my family, friends and colleagues who have reached out to me during this challenging time.  But no more "Oh, you poor baby" condolences.  We have a planet to save from our own self-interests.  

Nature and future generations are counting on us.

Source: RTSea Media                 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Maui Diving Made Easy: scooter dives save time and energy

Hawai'i is one of the most popular tourist locations because it offers so much to the visiting traveler.  From volcanoes to scuba diving to surfing to historical WW II attractions to a rich cultural island history that predates the advent of foreigners.

I had the opportunity to visit my son and daughter-in-law on the Hawaiian island of Maui recently and was taken back by how much it has developed since the days, several decades back, when I got my scuba diving instructor certification there.  Yes, some of the growth was a bit disturbing to see - I'm not much of a "tourist" and to see the environment encroached upon by one resort after another did not sit well.  However, I was pleased to see how underwater sports has developed there, making it easier for more people to experience and appreciate the underwater environment (and hopefully inspire visitors to ensure that it does not become over-exploited).

Snorkeling is very big in Maui - there seems to be a snorkel gear rental shop on every corner.  And for certified scuba divers, there are shore dives or boats to take you to outer islands like Lana'i and Molokini.  But there's also a "middle ground" of dive sites - clear coral reefs far enough offshore to be a challenge for scuba divers to reach, particularly the occasional dive vacationer who only puts in 2 or 3 dives a year.  That's the niche that Scuba Luv Maui tries to fill and does it in a wonderfully relaxed fashion using underwater dive scooters.

Maui's reefs, right offshore, are great for snorkelers but they suffer from the shallow water and wave action that keeps the sand and silt churned up.  Fine perhaps for the snorkelers, but scuba divers want reefs with color and plenty of sealife.  To do that, you need to get much further out where there are reef walls and drop-offs that provide you with the pastel-hued hard coral reefs and the variety of sealife Hawai'i is known for.  Scuba Luv Maui owners Steve and Diana Madaras accomplish this using underwater dive scooters.  These scooters can be held with your arms but that can ultimately become tiring as you are being "pulled" through the water  But by positioning it between the legs, the scooter provides a "push" - controlled propulsion that requires very little effort on the part of the diver.

I've known and dived often with Steve and Diana when they were based in Southern California at Catalina Island.  Having moved their operation to Maui in 2002, I missed their good humor and love of diving, so I made a point of contacting them and seeing what would be of interest on a couple of quick dives I could slip in with my son.  "Well, you ought to try one of our Hawaiian Superman scooter dives," Steve says.  Okay, I'll bite.

At the south end of Maui, in Kehei, we launched from shore to visit a WW II Helldiver aircraft wreck.  The plane apparently experienced engine trouble during training and splashed down about a half mile offshore, settling in a sandy area at about 50 feet.  It was a great dive, exploring the plane, made all the more fun with the help of the scooters to get us there.

On another dive, we traveled further out to an area where the state had considered establishing an artificial reef area using auto tires set in concrete slabs.  Plenty of hiding places for fish, but hard coral grows tremendously slow on a rubber substrate.  At least these tires didn't suffer the same disastrous fate as occurred in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in the 70s, where stacks of tires were strewn across the sea bottom due to typhoon wave action.

The key feature of this dive was just beyond the "reef" at 60 feet.  The Saint Anthony fishing trawler was sunk there, having been confiscated in a government drug raid. In classic shipwreck fashion, there was hard coral growth, lots of fish, and Hawaiian green sea turtles resting on the decks, getting cleaned of algae by a variety of fish.

It was great to see the increasing numbers of sea turtles in Maui today.  When I was diving there before, the turtle population was quite low and dive shop Divemasters would try to keep dive tourists away from any turtles they came upon, thereby putting out the welcome mat with the hope of seeing their numbers increase.  With that, combined with government protections put in place and enforced, the number of turtles has certainly rebounded.   

When I give lectures or presentations, I call upon many of my past diving experiences to help listeners appreciate the beauty and diversity of our natural underwater resources.  Active, hard core dive travelers get those experiences, but sometimes the infrequent diver does not.  Scuba Luv Maui has a great solution, whether a beginner or pro diver.  

Source: Scuba Luv Maui

Monday, January 20, 2014

Captive Whale Shows: eco-tourism provides alternatives

Following up on my November 10, 2013 post regarding the fate of orcas kept in captivity in aquatic amusement parks like Sea World, the public pressure seems to be continuing as several major contemporary music acts have cancelled their appearances at Sea World, thereby gutting a major entertainment series Sea World was heavily promoting.

As important as the environmental issue is regarding captive orcas and dolphins, it will be changes in economics that will be the actual thumbscrew to bring about change.  Less paying customers at the gate will most certainly catch the attention of Sea World management.

At present Sea World is waging an aggressive public relations campaign that refutes many of the assertions made in the documentary, Blackfish, which has greatly accelerated the debate.  Sea World claims that many of their other more admirable marine mammal activities are funded by the revenue drawn from the whale and dolphin shows, and that may be correct.  For Sea World to change its course would require a major change in revenue acquisition and distribution.  

At the same time, there are other alternatives to Sea World for the public to see whales.  Whale watching is one such activity and competing tourism operations in the San Diego area are capitalizing on Sea World's woes by promoting their own eco-tourism whale watching operations.

The Marriott International Corporation, with its many hotels in the San Diego area, are promoting their whale watching program.  This is the time of year for observing migrating gray whales as they cruise along the California coast, on their way to Baja, Mexico. 

The following infographic illustrates the gray whale migration and when they pass by the waters off San Diego.  The infographic was "Powered by Marriott."

Seeing whales in the wild in California, whether it be gray whales, blue whales, or even a pod of orcas (which recently cruised the California coast ), this is a much more natural and respectful manner in which to better appreciate these marine mammals for what they truly are - magnificent marvels of the oceans, not trained servants jumping through hoops.                       
Many thanks to the Marriott corporation for the use of the infographic.  If you would like to read more about whale watching and the program that the Marriott has available, click here.                  
Source: Marriott International Corporation

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Living Ocean Foundation: a 6-year coral reef expedition with hopes of making a difference

 There are many ocean conservation organizations that support the protection of coral reefs across the globe.  Each organization does the best with the resources that they have available, ranging from scientific research to general public awareness.  My personal interest has always been in groups that are producing quantifiable results, not just fan club-like support, although each has its place.  In my experience, I have found that what moves the bar forward in terms of international and regional policy-making are results that are meaningful to the politicians and diplomats who make the decisions that can have a direct impact on the preservation of coral reefs.

The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is one such organization that has been involved in an ambitious project to catalog the reefs of the world in a way that provides policy-makers with the information they need to make, hopefully, informed and responsible decisions.  The organization, founded in 2000 with considerable financial support from Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, has been involved in a six-year expedition to document the condition and health of coral reefs, utilizing a variety of media formats and standardized scientific measurement methods and protocols.

I have been fortunate to have had several conversations at past ocean conservation events with the foundation's executive director, Capt. Philip Renaud, USN retired.  With the release of the foundation's new, revamped website, I took the opportunity to address some questions to Capt. Renaud while he was on location exploring the coral reefs in New Caledonia, 750 miles east of Australia.   

RT: You’re currently on board the Golden Shadow in New Caledonia; what are you finding as to the current condition of the coral reefs there?
PR: New Caledonia holds a special place on our list of Global Reef Expedition sites. The coral reefs are in exceptionally good health here when put in context with the severity of the global coral reef crisis. The species diversity and high percentage of living coral cover are remarkable. We are presently surveying the most northerly atolls, which are called the D’entrecasteaux Atolls. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site managed by the Government of New Caledonia. There is very low anthropogenic stress on these reefs and atolls. Most notably, the top-level predators are abundant. We observe numerous sharks on nearly every dive and there are large groupers, Napoleon Wrasse, sea turtles, tuna, etc. on most dives. There are some worrying signs, however. There are quite a lot of diseased coral colonies and we discovered an outbreak of coral eating Crown of Thorns Sea stars at one small atoll.  Also, around the mainland, there is a large amount of run-off and sedimentation from the mining industry which negatively impacts water quality.

RT: You are about halfway into the Living Ocean Foundation’s 6-year commitment to the Coral Reef Expedition.  This is much more than an extended tropical dive vacation; what are the quantifiable goals that have been set forth for this expedition?  How are you serving – or intend to serve – both the scientific community and the marine policy community?
PR: The Global Reef Expedition is surveying across gradients (change) of biodiversity and anthropogenic (caused by man) stress. The data we collect will therefore permit us to separate natural disturbances from anthropogenic stress.  At the last International Coral Reef Symposium, one of the keynote speakers criticized coral scientists for not standardizing survey methods. We claim to be the first global coral expedition that is applying standardized survey protocols around the world.  Therefore, the Global Reef Expedition will provide coral reef scientists the ability to objectively compare and contrast reef health region to region and reef to reef.  We are also focusing on measuring indicators of coral reef resilience to get an understanding of whether or not coral reefs will be able to get through the climate change bottleneck. We create high-resolution habitat maps everywhere we survey to empower resource managers and accelerate the creation of networks of Marine Protected Areas.  We also only visit countries that have invited us thereby demonstrating the political will to implement conservation measures.  The Global Reef Expedition acts as an accelerant and catalyst to reef conservation.

RT: What will the general public ultimately gain from your expedition?  How do you plan to package your data for meaningful “general consumption”?
PR: The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation has a vibrant film production program and we’re broadcasting films that build awareness of the coral reef crisis and also talk about solutions. We place emphasis on effectively communicating science to decision makers and the general public. We have also started an exciting new coral reef education program with interactive, turn-key curricula, a Coral Reef Educator on the Water (C.R.E.W.) Program where we take a teacher on an expedition, and we have a Science Without Borders© Challenge program where students win prizes for the best submission of multi-media projects focused on an ocean conservation theme.

RT: You have several more years to go, but at this point, what does your team see as the primary reasons or causes for the healthy reefs you have seen so far; and what is impacting the unhealthy reefs?
PR: Coral Reefs are very inter-dependent and highly complex ecosystems.  Coral Reefs need connectivity with mangroves, sea grass beds, and other reefs to stay healthy.  They also need a healthy fish population.  Fish need corals and corals need fish to thrive. Each organism on the reef plays a functional role to maintain health of the reef.  Just like a city, a coral reef has street cleaners, policemen, carpenters, plumbers, construction workers, garbage collectors, etc.  If you started removing these functional components out of your city one by one, your city would soon become a disaster.  Same goes for the coral reefs.  We’ve loved them to death for too long by extracting everything of value we possibly can.  We’ve removed the predators, scrapers, grazers, detritivores, and herbivores off the reef.  We’ve polluted, dynamited, poisoned and bulldozed coral reefs.  Now we’re cooking the reefs with global warming. It’s a very tough situation. Our Global Reef Expedition has found that the reefs that are most remote and inaccessible are without a doubt the healthiest.  And, of the reefs that are close to big population centers, those reefs afforded protection are doing much better than unprotected reefs. That being said, it seems as if no reef, no matter how remote, is immune to the long reach of man. Global warming and ocean acidification is affecting reefs everywhere now. Our hope is that if we can quickly remove many of the local stressors such as pollution, sedimentation, and over-fishing, that the natural resilience of coral reefs will prevail in the face of climate change stress (the bottleneck) until such time as the world shifts to clean energy and sustainable fishing and land use practices.   

RT: There’s a lot to see and do on the new Living Oceans Foundation website.  Any suggestions as to how to get the most out of it for someone new to coral conservation?
PR: My suggestion is to concentrate on the “resources” tab.  Our goal is to continue to build the resources available on our website to become the go-to source for resource managers, educators, scientists and the general public.  We’ve really just begun so visit our site frequently.  One resource I’d like to bring to your attention is the World Web Map.  This is a new and unique map application that displays all of our coral reef habitat maps with more and more coming on-line continuously.  This is a prototype application that we’re very excited about.  It is interactive and there is a data portal built in that allows anyone to download the underlying data for free. 

Source: Living Oceans Foundation website 
Source: New Caledonia

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Orcas on Parade: time to close the circus of marine mamals

Throughout 2013, there has been a spike in interest as to whether or not organizations like Sea World should have marine mammals like whales, particularly orcas or "killer whales," dolphins, porpoises, and even seals and sea lions in captivity.  Part of this heightened interest has been due to the release of the documentary "Blackfish" which recently was aired to much fanfare and additional news programming material on CNN.

In the documnetary, the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca named "Tilikum" at Sea World's amusement park, in Orlando, Florida, was investigated.  The details leading up to that tragic incident and the subsequent aftermath was used to look at the broader history of orcas in captivity and the impact on the animals physical and psychological condition.

In past posts, I have expressed my views regarding maintaining marine mammal like whales and dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes. (Click here, and here.)  For whatever, broad educational or even research purpose it may have served, dating back as much as fifty years, that rationale has run its course.   

My initial first-hand experience with whales and dolphins was in the early 60's at Southern California's Marineland of the Pacific, watching pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins leaping into the air and jumping through fiery hoops.  It was impressive to see such animals and to wonder if there was something more to these animals' purpose than the simple commodity by which they were being viewed by segments of the commercial fishing industry.  From those early days, the public slowly became aware of the social intricacies of these animals, their advanced forms of communication and echolocation for hunting, and their threatened existence due to aggressive whale hunting.  Attitudes and policies slowly shifted as a steady stream of scientific research and facts changed our perception of these animals, and the fate of several species have benefited significantly for it.

Through this entire process of awareness, one activity remained virtually unchanged in the face of new facts: the use of marine mammals as entertainment. What science didn't know then, we know now.  And we know better. 

While there are many aquatic amusement parks throughout the world, Sea World is by far the largest and most extensive organization.  It is involved in four different areas of research and/or entertainment: traditional aquaria, marine research, marine animal rescue & rehabilitation, and aquatic amusement park.  To give Sea World a measure of credit, it has been responsible for some significant marine research and animal rescue and rehab work.  And it has fulfilled the traditional role of combining education and entertainment through some of its aquarium settings.  However, its role as an aquatic amusement park has become its flagship activity and the most easily marketable one.  Having the public watch whales and dolphins do tricks is what Sea World is known for; it is a major revenue stream for the organization and, ironically, helps support the other activities.

From a purely business perspective, to radically alter the Sea World business model by eliminating its whale, dolphin, and seal programs, would be a very risky step.  Marine mammal shows have been a cash cow for so long, it would be hard to walk away from it.  This is the same dilemma environmentalists face in dealing with the energy companies.  Regardless of the obvious benefits to the environment from a major shift to alternative energy, the extant of change required to the established business model, the disruption of the status quo, is more than the energy companies are prepared to willingly endure.  However, if a change in public perception were to occur and, by extension, a change in attitude regarding marine mammals for entertainment purposes that equates to diminishing ticket sales, then Sea World's decision could possibly be made for them by the demands of the marketplace.

Some defenders of Sea World have compared the whale and dolphin shows to that of zoos and aquariums; that the public learns about orcas through these shows just like someone learns about tigers at a zoo.  I beg to differ.  Zoos and aquariums strive to show animals in as natural of an environment as possible, so that people can develop an appreciation for the animal in a more real world setting, seeing them behave as they would in the wild.  To be sure, zoos and aquariums are not without fault.  We have all seen animals in confinement exhibit unnatural behaviors - from the path habits of pacing big cats in bleak cages to the neurotic ticks and twitches of elephants - and there are the occasional entertainment shows with monkeys or exotic birds.  But zoos and aquariums have evolved to gain a better appreciation of their role and it has been reflected in improved exhibits for the animals' physical and psychological needs and a dedication to informing the public as to the ecological importance of the animals.  One goes to the zoo to see the tiger and marvel at an important jungle predator - not to see it jump through a hoop.

Perhaps, decades ago, going to a whale or dolphin show was the only way a person could learn anything about these animals and come away with some degree of awareness and appreciation.  However, in light of the amount of written material, pictures, and films or videos about whales and dolphins in today's information age, it is impossible to justify keeping pelagic marine mammals in confining concrete enclosures and having them leap in the air on command as the price to be paid for our knowledge and enlightenment.

But what is it about seeing a whale give a trainer a ride on its back that attracts the general public?  Why does seeing a dolphin shake its head back and forth and squeal for a hand-delivered fish fill the seats?  Why are we entertained when a sea lion balances a ball on its nose while clapping its flippers?  Sadly, people will pay money to watch these stupid tricks because, regardless of what is said at the time regarding the animals intelligence, it humors our sense of superiority.  

For some people, it is unsettling deep down to realize there are other creatures on this planet who have unique abilities that equal or even surpass our own.  We must be the dominant species, in their minds, and so they are only prepared to consider an orca as something more than a "dumb fish" if it can demonstrate it by doing something demeaning, something that it would never do on its own in its natural environment.  It does it because we, the vastly superior species, taught it to do so.  With each and every marine mammal show, consciously or unconsciously, our human arrogance is what is being put on display.

And it is that insecure pomposity with our role in the natural order of things that continues to feed Sea World's coffers.  When more people realize that no aquatic amusement park can provide suitable confinement for a marine mammal who - by virtue of its size or its echolocation, radar-like abilities - requires both space and nurturing social interaction, then organizations like Sea World and others around the world will change.  These are businesses that are providing what the public wants to see.  We must see these animals in a new light just as we must see our role and purpose on this planet in a whole new light.

We know better. 

Source: Sea World
Source: Blackfish 
Source: RTSea posts 1, 2 & 3                                        

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Diana Nyad: turning the Extreme Dream into reality

In case you have been too engrossed in the news coming from Syria or who is entering the semi-finals on America's Got Talent, on September 2nd, Diana Nyad achieved her goal of swimming from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida - a distance of 103 miles (110 miles when you take into account course corrections).  This was her fifth attempt to cover this distance and she completed it at age sixty-four.

I was honored to be a member of her shark watch team in 2011 in what was, technically, her second attempt - the first attempt being in 1978 and then she took a 30-year plus break from endurance swimming. (Click here for my follow up post to that event).  I was asked to join her on her next later two attempts but schedules conflicted and I remained a spectator since then. (Other posts here and here.)

For this last successful attempt, Diana had the best of weather and ocean conditions - calm, warm, and with obliging currents.  The stretch between Cuba and Florida can be frought with changing, unpredictable currents that can push swimmers off course and sap their strength.  This time, the currents were less of an issue; in fact, at one point, they worked to her advantage, giving her a push from behind which helped keep her overall speed high.

One of the biggest challenges she had faced in previous attempts was the threat of stings from some of the warm water sea jellies that cruise through the area.  In many years past, it was the threat of sharks that was always the primary concern.  Ocean endurance swimmers have used shark cages in the water but, with time, those are now frowned upon as they nullify much of the effect of the currents.  Some have described swimming in the cage as like swimming in a bath tub (previously, one swimmer had completed the Cuba-to-Florida swim using a shark cage and completing the distance in less than 30 hours, compared to Diana's time of 53 hours).

But times have changed.  Sharks are threatened by commercial fishing and illegal poaching, and so the chances for a shark encounter have dwindled, while the number of sea jellies has grown dramatically.  Scientists do not yet have definitive answers as to why, but factors such as warming ocean temperatures, pollution, and the depletion of the sea jellies' natural predators could all play a role.

For Diana, sea jellies were her major threat, as their powerful stings were deciding factors in her being unable to complete some of her previous attempts.  For this final attempt, she had a specially designed, head-to-toe swimsuit and face mask that she would don during the day or night when sea jellies were anticipated.  The use of this protective gear was no picnic.  

"To put that on [the protective suit] was like putting on a wedding gown in the ocean," said Steven Munatones, open water swimming coach and adviser to Diana in the past. 

Diana's online web and social media team have done an excellent job in providing ongoing information and updates during her swim and in the many weeks and months of preparation leading up to the event.  You can peruse through her website at

Beyond all the facts and details is the undeniable resolve of someone who had a goal gnawing at her, in the back of her mind, for several decades and who decided to achieve her goal despite the fact that she was getting into her 60s when she resumed training.  Much has been written about her determination.  And with each unsuccessful attempt there was an avalanche of support from fans and well-wishers, but there was always the specter of determination turning into obsession.

It's a fine line: determination and obsession.  Perhaps there is no difference, really.  One may be applauded for their determination when they succeed and labeled a Captain Ahab obsessive when they fail.  Or perhaps the difference lies in what the goal means to a larger audience.  It could be determination when others can take something away from the experience that benefits their lives, their outlook on life and the world.  And it's an obsession when it is a purely self-centered activity, particularly when it is at the expense of others.

Working as I do with others in the ocean conservation community, I have had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, getting a sense of why they are so committed to what they are doing.  Altruistic determination or self-centered obsession?  I've seen both.  The ones who I feel are making a true, quantifiable difference to either the science of ocean conservation or the education of those who are unaware of the extant of ocean conservation issues - those are the determined ones.  The ones, like a Diana Nyad, who encourage people to realize that there are no limits, no goals that should be dismissed, at any age, when the end result is something that could benefit his or her fellow man.

Diana's "Extreme Dream" has been reached and her next goal, her next challenge, will be to find a replacement.  I'm sure she will be busy for some time on the speaking circuit and perhaps, beyond the technical feat of the Cuba-to-Florida swim, that will be her lasting legacy - how she turned determination into motivation for many others.  Some of us will reach our own personal goals and many of us will not.  But it will be the journey that will ultimately prove the measure of the individual, not the feat itself.  

Which is why Diana Nyad's motto over these past years has always been "Onward!"


Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Challenge of Accepting Change

When we look back on world history, we usually find that great societal or economic improvements came about through major changes in attitudes or actions.  What we often do not see is how disruptive those changes were for many people.  The idea of maintaining the status quo is very comforting for many people even when, in doing so, it may lead to decline, calamity or worse.

On this past Fourth of July, I was watching the excellent HBO series, John Adams, and I was reminded of the challenging reality that took place as the original framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution wrestled with the revolutionary birth of a new nation.  Behind those patriotic images we all grew up with as schoolchildren were many men of good intentions who were resistant, perhaps terrified, of change, even when maintaining the staus quo meant hardship and oppression from a patron government across the Atlantic.

It took the finesse of politics and diplomacy to get all the leaders of the, then, colonies to agree on a radical change in their lives as representative statesman.  To think beyond the self-interests of a colony and look at the broader, greater good as states united - well, that did not come easy and many times stood on the verge of collapse.

That can also be said of the many environmental issues we face today.  Whether climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, or plastic pollution - just to name a few, we as environmental advocates must always be aware of the impact our goals and objectives might have on the status quo mentality of those who will be impacted by our conservation desires.  We may firmly believe in our logic and in the scientific data that supports it, and we may be firm in our resolve that to not proactively address these issues would mean a significant decline in the quality of life on this planet.  But at the same time, there are others who firmly believe in the opposite because by doing so, they are able to maintain the staus quo for themselves, either socially or economically.

The development of alternative energy is a good example.  While the oil and energy industry giants make token gestures to alternative energy research, fundamentally they would prefer to maintain the current system that has been established over the past 100+ years; that of refineries, pipelines, drilling installations and distribution networks that represent an incredibly huge financial investment.  It is a steamship of gargantuan proportions whose course is very difficult to change, regardless of any icebergs that lie ahead.

But many icebergs do lie ahead.  And its course must be changed.  The oligopoly that is the oil and gas industry is missing an opportunity to shift gears and become the titans of a new industry.  They will have to abandon their current ways at some point and, between waiting until later - when it will be forced to do so because of a lack of natural resources - or taking the bold initiative to make a concerted effort in a new direction, the latter is actually the greater risk, the scarier of the two scenarios for an industry with such an entrenched economic mindset.

So, we, the environmental opponents who represent a threat to their economic status quo, must plan our strategies carefully.  We see a sense of urgency supported by scientific evidence but we must be diplomatically clever in how we sell our argument to both the people and the politicians.  Near the latter part of the Bush administration,  government funding of alternative energy companies began, and it was continued and expanded under the Obama presidency.  It was chided by many who support the status quo, but in a recent editorial by Dan Primack in Fortune magazine, it was pointed out that the program has attained more wins than losses.

"...the overall loan portfolio seems to be in good shape.  Well-publicized losses like Solyndra represent just 2% of total commitments.  Around half of the remaining projects are operational, and the recipients have begun repaying their loans." 

By supporting the development of new alternative energy companies and, by their success, advancing the technologies that promise cleaner energy, the oil and gas industry is being put on notice - either embrace the future wholeheartedly now or watch your power erode even before your current supplies of raw materials run out.  I, for one, would not care if the titans of the oil and gas industry shifted gears and became multi-billionaires once again but this time using alternative cleaner energy as their ticket to wealth.  As long as the environment is spared in the conversion and we have cleaner air and water as a result, I am fine with that.   

Environmentalists will have to be equally as clever in getting the consumer to rethink how they use energy.  Sometimes society's resistance to changing it's consumption habits can be just as daunting as industry's intransigence to altering it's established revenue models.  Confrontation often has to give way to leading by example, providing acceptable alternatives, and making information freely available.  Sometimes by positioning new approaches or actions in terms of personal benefits - making benefits to the environment seem almost frustratingly secondary - one can win over people to a new way of doing things, a new status quo. 

In John Adams, you saw the protagonist agonize over how he had to massage, cajole, flatter, and convince his opponents to change the course of history, all for the greater good.  That was how a great nation was formed.  The future of the planet requires no less from those who wish to conserve and protect it for generations to come.  Change is inevitable; it's all a matter of how you go about it.   

Source: HBO's John Adams  
Source: Fortune/Dan Primack                                

Monday, May 27, 2013

Filmmaker's Journal: Oceanic whitetip sharks

Filmmakers and avid amateur underwater photographers are constantly on the prowl for new locations and new species to document.  This holds true for those interested in sharks, too.  Either on assignment or as part of a stock footage expedition, I have been to Isla Guadalupe, Baja to film great white sharks at least 16 times and I have been to Tiger Beach, off Grand Bahama, around eight or ten times.  And while I have more footage of white sharks, lemon sharks, and tiger sharks, and other species than I know what to do with, I usually jump at the chance to see these incredible animals one more time.

One shark species that I had not had the pleasure of seeing face-to-face, was the oceanic whitetip.  This shark is a pelagic predator, which is to say that it spends most of its time in open water, far away from shore.  It has the reputation of being in the top four of the most dangerous sharks (along with the great white, tiger, and bull shark) as it was typically associated with shark attacks during World War II following the sinking of ships in tropic waters.

Epic Diving, based in New Jersey and operating for four to five months out of the year at Cat Island in the Bahamas, has made a specialty of diving with oceanic whitetips.  During the spring, these sharks seem to migrate to the island, primarily staying in the deep drop-offs that surround the island.  The Cape Eleuthra Institute has been tagging and studying these sharks to try to determine the whys and wheres of their migration.  It's still not fully understood, but their springtime sojorn to Cat Island affords divers the opportunity to see these beautiful sharks, with their distinctive rounded, snow-capped dorsal and long pectoral fins.

For this trip, I was trying out a new camera rig.  I typically shoot video with a Sony EX-3 with a nanoFlash external recorder.  This provides me with broadcast quality, 4-2-2 footage (unless my client wants to shoot with something higher up the food chain like a RED Epic) and it has served me well for many years.  The drawback is that it requires a rather large housing which is great for stability but not so much fun when you need to be more mobile - like chasing after a whale shark or maneuvering to catch a shot of schooling tuna or jacks.

So here, I was breaking in a Canon 5D Mk III with Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes and Light & Motion Sola 4000 video lights.  In addition to taking great still pictures, the Canon 5D Mk III also shoots terrific video.  This has made it a popular camera with independent filmmakers as it delivers a film-like range in depth of field with a variety of lenses at the filmmaker's disposal.  For me, that versatility was attractive for both topside and underwater shoots, but it also provides me with a smaller package to push through the water.  

Slipping into the water with a new species of shark always gets the adrenaline pumping and this first day of the expedition proved to be no exception.  We found ourselves being visited by five or six very curious oceanic whitetips.  These sharks cruised the surface so scuba gear wasn't necessary, just freediving (mask, snorkel & fins).  As Vincent Canabal of Epic Diving instructed us in our pre-dive safety briefing, it was important to keep an eye on the sharks around you or you could get bumped.  Photographers and videographers can get wrapped up in looking through the viewfinder, setting up or waiting for that perfect shot.  But in the world of shark diving that can be a very limiting view of what is truly going on around you.

Oceanic whitetips are beautiful sharks.  Elegant with distinctive markings, they move at a very relaxed pace and, for the filmmakers and photographers, they are very accommodating.  Their curiosity takes them from one diver to another, coming straight at you and then drawn to their own reflected image in your camera dome.  You often would find yourself having to nudge them away at the last moment for fear that they would brush up against your dome lens port with their rough skin (my acrylic fisheye dome port suffered a few abrasions which I was able to buff out, fortunately).

The oceanic whitetip shark's curiosity is understandable, given their lifestyle as a pelagic predator.  Imagine swimming day after day through deep blue water, not sure where your next meal is coming from.  Any sound, scent, or visual cue would grab your attention as it would represent a change from the norm and could portend a possible meal. 

While getting eye-to-eye closeups with these magnificent sharks is always exciting, one of my favorite still photographs from the expedition was one that captured the solitary existence of this pelagic predator who spends its life cruising through the endless blue.

Tragically, the curious nature of the oceanic whitetip, combined with its preference for open water, has made it a target for commercial shark fishing boats that ply international waters - right in the oceanic whitetip's backyard.  The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the oceanic whitetip on its Red List as "vulnerable" to extinction and that its population trend is decreasing.  The recent world meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) resulted in having the oceanic whitetip placed on CITES' Appendix II, which is a first step in monitoring and ultimately regulating the trade in this particular species.  Hopefully, such steps will be in time before the oceanic whitetip's population reaches a tipping point wherein its inability to replenish its numbers faster than the rate of extraction causes an irreversible collapse.

My thanks to Vin and Debbie Canabal of Epic Diving for a first-rate operation.  And a special thanks to Amanda Cotton who was there to provide a photo workshop and advice to all the divers.  Playing with new toys, it's always great to have someone to turn to who is so accomplished in her field.  

Photos copyright 2013 by Richard Theiss/RTSea Media
Source: Epic Diving

RTSea Blog returns

In December of 2012, as administrator and chief writer for this blog, I made the decision to place it in a somewhat state of dormancy as I needed to devote more time to other projects.  Hence, RTSea Archives was born.  After posting over 950 posts, articles, and observations over a 5-year period, I felt I had done enough and I found readership was shifting to other platforms or media channels (Facebook, Twitter, et al).

After receiving a number of requests, I have decided to bring the RTSea Blog back - perhaps not as fervently as it was before as researching information and writing posts is, for me, still very time-consuming, but I hope to contribute several posts a month.

Blogs can be effective when the content is relevant and well-thought out.  I'm not interested in invective-laced rants.  Opinions and positions are fine, but let's do it in an intelligent, constructive, and respectful manner. 

Since December, I have been involved in several projects, ranging from film proposals to writing to ecotourism - and these projects will still be my primary focus.  But I hope you will check in from time to time to see what I have been up to or what observations I might have regarding what I believe to be the most pressing issue for the continued survival of mankind as a species - the conservation and preservation of the oceans.                 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Protecting Sharks: the two-edged sword that is CITES

This past week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded their 16th triennial Conference of the Parties (CoP16) with much fanfare among shark conservationists as 5 species of sharks and 2 species of rays were given recognition of status that could lead to a reduction in the commercial fishing for these animals.  However, before shark advocates break out the champagne, it's important to view the measures taken by CITES as steps in a long process and, in the interim, sharks and rays will continue to be taken.

Many of the steps taken by CITES represent a two-edged sword with good and bad elements on each side.  The 7 elasmobranch species were awarded an Appendix II status at CoP16.  Specifically, Appendix II states the following:

 "Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called 'look-alike species', i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild."

The good news is that an Appendix II rating recognizes that a particular plant or animal species may be at risk and therefore trade should be monitored through the issuing of export permits.  CITES does not require import permits from any of its 177 member nations when it comes to dealing in Appendix II species, but nations with commercial fleets involved in the taking of these species will be required to have export permits.

That is definitely a major improvement to the situation for the 7 shark and ray species because, before this determination, these animals were fair game for anyone.  (The species in question: oceanic whitetip shark; great, scalloped, and smooth hammerhead sharks; porbeagle shark; and 2 species of manta ray.)  While shark researchers and conservationists have been noting population declines for some time, either through empirical evidence or anecdotal accounts, CITES, as a major international body, had not formally acknowledged the predicament.  So, this constitutes a very big step forward.

Okay, so break out the bubbly, but don't have that second glass just yet.

Moving forward, CITES will need to be engaged in extensive monitoring of catches to determine whether numbers are being taken at sustainable levels (if you believe in sustainable catch levels of elasmobranchs, something in which I have considerable doubts).  A review of available data will be undertaken to determine baseline levels for each species and then ongoing monitoring of catch levels and estimated populations will be required to determine whether permits should be modified or restricted. 

In describing the decision as it regards the porbeagle shark, a shark that lost out to intense last minute pressure at CoP15 in 2010 but won Appendix II status at this current meeting, a CITES press release noted, "The proponents welcomed the impressive alliance of countries co-sponsoring the proposal and argued that requiring CITES export permits will ensure that international markets are supplied by fish from sustainably managed fisheries that keep accurate records." 

There are many in the ocean conservation community who have expressed concern as to how effectively the monitoring will be carried out, particularly by nations that opposed the new measures.  Of the nations in attendance, just over 90 nations voted in favor of the various shark and ray proposals and around 40 opposed.  So it was not overwhelming and there is concern as to whether opposing nations will drag their feet with the executing of fishery management monitoring of these species. 

In a recent post on Twitter, ocean conservationist Dr. Carl Safina said, "CITES votes to monitor global trade in several shark species.  It's a hard-won win.  But monitor does not mean stop."  Opposing nations, like Japan and China, took the position that national or regional monitoring of catch levels would be sufficient, that international regulations were not necessary.  Many viewed that as the "fox watching the hen house," but it is an argument that can be brought up in the future as these Appendix ratings are not permanent and subject to change at the next CoP meeting in 2016.

Should these sharks and rays be given an Appendix I status, as was the freshwater sawfish at CoP16, which mandates a complete prohibition in trade?  Some shark advocates think so, but for CITES to completely end trade in a particular species, unfortunately, the situation has to be pretty dire and, for sharks, that could mean teetering on the edge of extinction before any action is taken - which could be too late.

An Appendix I rating is often a difficult pill for CITES members to swallow because a complete prohibition goes against the fundamental mission of the organization, which is to sustain the trade in endangered species, not necessarily the species itself.  So, any Appendix I rating is always subject to later review and revision.

Another encouraging step taken at CoP16 was in regards to illegal trade: either violations by member nations or the poachers and illegal traders who ignore CITES regulations altogether.  Illegal shark fishing, elephant or rhinoceros hunting, and many other illegal activities are taking a significant toll.

CITES reported, "The first global meeting of wildlife enforcement networks took place alongside the main meeting to scale up regional enforcement capacity and coordination to respond to the serious threat posed to wildlife by criminal networks. Several events of the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) brought together Government Ministers, the world's Wildlife Enforcement Networks, the Asian Development Bank, chief justices, attorney generals, senior police and Customs, and enforcement officers to discuss transboundary wildlife crime."

We should all watch closely as to what are the resulting actions of the ICCWC as enforcement hampered by limited manpower, logistical, and financial resources has always been a major issue for many established conservation measures, including wildlife preserves and parks, marine protected areas, and other such sanctuaries.

Overall, this year, CITES and CoP16 proved to be much less of a disappointment to the conservation community than in previous years.  However, its actions of the past week, as positive as they were, represent just one building block of many that need to be put in place to ensure that natural resources - which are showing, more and more, the effects of mankind's voracious consumption - will be here for future generations.

Source: CITES press release