Monday, May 31, 2010

Neither Hide Nor Hair

Alone, up to my waist in a cypress gum swamp in southwestern Georgia, I strained to see through the trees in the little light that filtered down through the canopy above. Every few months, I was required to visit about thirty different isolated wetlands in the area to keep track of how the water levels have fluctuated. For most of the swamps and ponds I visited, this was a straightforward task, requiring me only to take a few steps out of the truck and use my binoculars to view the water gauge (basically a giant ruler) in the middle of the wetland.

To reach the gauge in one particular swamp though, I had to leave the truck far behind and navigate through a labyrinth of cypress trunks; I parted the dark waters and tried to keep my balance as I avoided tree roots snaking through the depths. Most unnerving was the knowledge this swamp was the home of at least one large alligator.

The big male had been spotted years before and it was surely still patrolling the depths of this secluded wetland. Taking deep breaths, I made sure not to lift my feet too high so there was no chance I’d bring them down on a giant reptile invisibly slumbering on the bottom.

The logical portion of my brain tried to convince me I had little to fear, although alligators are potentially dangerous animals, you can be reasonably assured of safety if you afford them some respect. Far from man-hunters, most wild alligators will slowly (or quickly) swim away from you the moment they detect your presence. Adults often prey primarily on fish and turtles but they may also lie in wait near the water’s edge and grab raccoons, pigs, and even deer as they come down to drink. Their hunting strategy is ingrained within them and a lumbering and clumsy human just doesn’t compute as potential food.

Problems arise when people start feeding alligators, when this occurs the animals begin to associate humans with food. Tragedies may follow; many state wildlife agency protocols rightfully mandate the killing of wild alligators that have been fed by humans. The situation becomes too dangerous to consider any other option. Time and time again, well-intentioned but ignorant wildlife lovers directly lead to the death of their local alligators by feeding them.

But, I digress. As I waded through the swamp, I knew I was in little danger. In this secluded area, the alligator had not been fed. If he was nearby, he was likely hiding and hoping I wouldn’t come anywhere near. But, I was still afraid. And sometimes, fear makes you do irrational things.

That’s the only explanation I can come up with as to why a large alligator was recently killed by authorities in Chilton County, Alabama. From what I can glean from the newspaper reports, a group of fishermen came across a large alligator crossing a dirt road about an hour before sunrise. They contacted local police, who in turn reached other government officials, and they all tried to relocate the animal. When this failed, they shot it to death.

It’s not clear to me why they didn’t consider leaving the animal alone as a potential course of action. Near a body of water and in an apparently rural area, this was an animal that was likely traveling overland to find a new wetland with some lady friends. It’s their mating season after all. It’s true alligators are potentially dangerous, but the safest option when one is encountered is to walk away.

Officials stressed the animal could’ve been searching for food and therefore was a danger to small children, but these comments don’t particularly resonate as it’s not consistent with what is known about alligator biology. They simply don’t go walking around on land looking for food.

The American alligator was nearly driven extinct in the 20th century by commercial hunters after their hides. Alabama was one of the first states to recognize their imperiled status and moved to protect the species even before the federal government did so in 1973. What followed is one of the few conservation success stories the United States can claim. Protected from unregulated hunting, the American alligator rebounded quickly and officials deemed the species had recovered by 1987. This was a bit of a misnomer, as there were many areas where the species hadn’t fully rebounded, particularly on the outskirts of its range, such as in Chilton County Alabama. I would expect there would have to be a good reason to kill a breeding adult alligator in this region, in a state where the species is still protected and hunts are carefully regulated. In any case, Chilton County is now one less alligator closer to a recovered population.

I was always terribly relieved when the water gauge finally revealed itself from within the tangle of brush in the center of my southwestern Georgia wetland; I paused only long enough to make out the numbers before I hightailed it back to the truck as quickly as possible. If there were alligators nearby, I saw neither hide nor hair of them. I’m sure they kept an eye on me though, as they patiently waited for me to leave before resuming whatever alligators do whenever we aren’t around to bother them.

Photo courtesy Fingerprince Photography

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Watching and Waiting

Each year, my friends and I look forward to the long weekend when we rent a beach house on the white sands of the Florida panhandle. The few days we spend there always go by too quickly; they’re filled with time spent on the dock fishing for redfish and cast netting for mullet. We kayak through the water as osprey fly above us and swim with an eye out for dolphins in the surf. As the sun sets, we invariably retire to the house to grill up the day’s catch on the barbecue. We drink beers, eat seafood and laugh while we listen to waves crash against the beach. It’s true when they say the simple things in life may bring the most pleasure.

It’s a pleasure that has been taken from us, and perhaps our children as well. All of us along the Gulf Coast are looking out on the ocean helplessly as ecological disaster looms. Discouraging news drifts in like the oil-soaked birds that will soon litter the beaches. We are no longer able to fish, the shrimp season has been closed early. Those that rely on these resources for their sustenance and livelihood can only wait and watch with the rest of us. We can’t yet know how the ecosystem will be affected, we can only estimate when the oil slicks will first hit our coastal wetlands, when the animals that fly through the water begin floating on top instead.

Calling recent events a leak or a spill does not sufficiently capture the scope of the disaster. Today, 210,000 gallons of oil are escaping into the Gulf of Mexico, as they have every day since the explosion two weeks ago on the British Petroleum rig Deepwater Horizon. For all those who warned about the perils of offshore drilling, it’s a nightmare come true. Don’t call it a fluke either. Because tragedies like this are exactly the reason the practice is opposed by so many. No technology can guarantee safety and nothing is worth the cost we incur when things go wrong. Vindication though, brings no pleasure now.

The media has been covering the disaster, environmental groups are mobilizing thousands of volunteers, and concern has been raised throughout the nation. But, it’s not enough to be concerned, it’s not enough to shake one’s head and say this is a shame. Not when one considers that we may never be able to restore the Gulf of Mexico.

Unless we start becoming proactive about the choices we make, this will inevitably happen again. It has been slightly over 20 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. I doubt it will be another 20 years until the next disaster. Until we start making responsible decisions about our consumption, until we put everything we have into developing alternative energies, until we pledge to stop supporting politicians that think the way to oil independence is to look for more of it, we have something in common with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, we’re both just blowing smoke. Enough is enough, this is a catastrophe of epic proportions in our very own backyard and if it’s not the wakeup call we needed regarding the need to make some hard but necessary choices about energy use, then we have bigger problems than those facing the Gulf of Mexico today.

The next time disaster strikes, and it will, it won’t be the fault of the oil industry, it will be ours.

It was only a few months ago that I accompanied a Florida biologist monitoring loggerhead sea turtles nests in Okaloosa County. Flashlights were strictly forbidden to avoid confusing any turtles trying to find their way to the safety of the ocean. In the darkness, we huddled around a small patch of beach that hid a nest that had not yet hatched. As this species was particularly rare, it was important to determine the fate of the eggs underground. Handful after handful of sand was removed and a collective gasp emanated from the crowd as a baby sea turtle was revealed with its flippers flapping, it was one of many released safely into the ocean that night. Now, they could be some of the very same turtles that are struggling to stay alive as a coat of oil covers their entire world.