Brian Skerry

A truly incredible interview with ILCP photographer Brian Skerry. Had to share!

True To Me Too

I was having a hard time writing a summary for you because you do so many things, you’re a photojournalist for National Geographic Magazine, you’ve written several books including the upcoming From Above and Below: Man and the Sea, you’ve spoken at TED conferences, you’re the explorer in residence at the New England Aquarium, and you help found the New England Ocean Odyssey.  Can you try to sum it up for me?

It all generates from the fact that I’m a photojournalist.  I’ve been working for National Geographic Magazine for fifteen years and I specialize in making pictures and telling stories about ocean wildlife mostly.  There’s a blend of celebratory and sort of issue based coverage that I do, a lot of the stuff I do these days has an environmental or conservation theme but generally that’s where everything begins. I go out and do…

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Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition treks the state to promote unique conservation

FL Wildlife Corridor Team crossing the state on horseback (and foot and kayak)

Along the I-4 corridor between the Tampa Bay Area and Orlando, there’s a multitude of different landscapes: from sky-scraping cities to cookie cutter houses to orange groves. These concrete corridors are Florida’s passageways.

But a different type of corridor is being proposed for Florida; one that we don’t get to use. The Florida Wildlife Corridor project is a groundbreaking group of biologists, photographers, filmmakers, ranchers, and state and federal stakeholders who are undertaking a paradigm shifting approach to conservation. Recently reaching the half-way mark at the Disney Wildlife Preserve in Kissimmee, Fla., the project promotes the conservation of Florida’s wild areas by connecting them through multi-stakeholder initiatives.

What began as a concept of raising public awareness around a Florida wildlife corridor, has turned into a 100 day, 1,000 mile journey, on foot, kayak and horseback, from the Everglades to the Florida-Georgia border. Lead by conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr., cinematographer Elam Stoltzfus, black bear biologist Joe Guthrie, and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, the team of four travel the state of Florida to promote the creation of wildlife corridors for the conservation and preservation of the state’s unique ecosystems.

Throughout the team’s journey, numerous stakeholders have joined to support their initiatives, and learn about the mission to provide a connected habitat for Florida’s wildlife.

Along with creating a network of ecosystem corridors, the project leaders highlight the importance of preserving Florida’s working ranch lands. What at first seems at odds with conservation, is actually an inspiring and unique approach to multi-stakeholder conservation. By bringing together multiple interest groups – like the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, local universities, farmers, and ranchers – the establishment of a working corridor system is a feasible goal. These groups work together to make the vision a possibility.

Corridor Map

“I believe it’s possible for the first time in Florida history,” says Ward Jr., an eighth generation Floridian, as well as a photographer who’s photos are instrumental in documenting Florida’s vanishing places. “It’s amazing that in a state of 18 million people, so intensely developed in so many ways, there’s still the chance to protect millions of protected acres. And that’s a tribute to the hard work of conservationists over the years and the dedicated stewardship of ranchers and landowners. We’re at this time where the future of ranching and the future of food production is in many ways threatened in the same way that the future of black bears and Florida panthers, and clean water for the Everglades is [threatened]. The common ground approach is what gives me hope we can get this done.”

This viewpoint diverges from the status quo of single species management and piece-mealing conservation directives.

“So all of a sudden, connecting Big Cypress and the Everglades to the Kissimmee River valley is more possible than it ever has been before,” he says.

As the team moves across Florida, it takes, as Ward Jr. says, the “pulse of the state as [they] go.” While intentionally avoiding the more intensely developed areas, the route has taken swings and turns to stay on the natural landscape. One aspect that has stuck in the minds of the team is the effectiveness of the wildlife underpasses.

Wildlife underpasses are built below roads, particularly along I-75 and the Tamiami Trail, which has 36 underpasses alone. These allow wildlife like Florida panthers and black bears, as well as water, to move freely even in the midst of anthropogenic development.

While walking through an underpass along Picayune State Forest and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the team saw male and female panther tracks going both ways, along with bear and other species’ tracks.

Ward says the proof of these tracks “combined with the knowledge that there are not many panthers killed on that stretch of road since the fencing was put in,” shows that the simple act of creating underpasses protects numerous species that may otherwise end up as road kill. Cars have killed five Florida panthers in just the first two months of 2012, highlighting the importance of incorporating wildlife underpasses into road management, especially with such a critically endangered species.

Lake George, Kissimmee, FL. One of the largest freshwater lakes in FL.

While Ward Jr. says it’s very encouraging to “go from large cattle ranches to state parks, to national parks, and be able to follow an enacted path,” there are also areas of land with uncertain futures.  These areas, called bottlenecks, are where a small part of the land is used as a natural crossing for numerous wildlife, forcing species into a narrow corridor for migration.

Along the shores of the Caloosahatchee River is an area that connects the South Florida landscape to the north, where panthers and other animals naturally swim across.

“That particular landscape was under financial distress, potentially foreclosure – it could be slated for a trailer park or some other type of use. So it shows that time is of the essence here,” Ward Jr. says.

The team expects to encounter more of these “critical linkages” under threat as they move through Florida, highlighting the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation.

“It’s a nonpartisan, commonsense approach to conservation – it’s a pretty clear and logical way forward,” he says.

So what role can the general public play in all of this?

“The first thing is help tell the story,” Ward Jr. says. “This is our Florida, this is not just Disney or Miami Beach. This is a place where we still have six out of the top 10 cattle ranches in the country, we still have amazing wildlife like bears and panthers. and all these other endangered species. People telling their friends and sharing the stories we’re producing – stories that other organizations like us, like-minded people and organizations are producing. Having a sense of ownership of this state, which is ours and what we want it to be. Those are the broad brush-strokes of our mission.”

There are also numerous policy-related opportunities that can make a difference, and which the public can participate in through monetary support or education.

The USDA’s Wetland Reserve Program has invested nearly $200 million in protecting ranches and farmlands through conservation easements. The Florida Forever Program is a state-run program that works toward land acquisition through conservation easements. With more than 9.9 million acres managed for conservation, 2.5 million have come directly out of this program. However, the program’s funding had been cut to $0. It’s anticipated to resume funding at $15 million a year, but that is a far-cry from its previous $300 million funding. This means that less and less land can be acquired for conservation, including protected habitats and critical linkages.

The Conservation Trust for Florida works with private landholders in conservation easements, and in land donations and carbon credits. They are working with the Florida Wildlife Corridor team to protect a corridor linking the Ocala National Forest to Osceola National Forest (O2O Corridor), a critical linkage allowing black bears to migrate north.

The Northern Everglades Alliance is working toward the creation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, a potentially 150,000 acre refuge north of Lake Okeechobee, which Ward Jr. says conserves  “one of the last remaining grasslands and longleaf pine savanna landscapes in eastern North America.”

Pristine FL

The initiative is based in the cooperative management of conservation easements on ranch lands and other private lands. Ten acres have been donated, so there is still a long way to reach the 150,000 acre goal. But through cooperative management, the public’s involvement, and education initiatives, the Everglades Headwaters Refuge is a distinct possibility in connecting the last remaining wild areas in Florida.

You can follow the team’s entire expedition – an undertaking that not only has far reaching hopes for wildlife, but also for every citizen of this state – through their website and Facebook page, which hosts stunning photos and video of the wild lands of Florida, that few rarely get to see.

And as Ward Jr. says, “this is our Florida,” we all play a part in its future.

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Getting to meet your photography hero

Lake Russell, Kissimmi

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to meet the expedition team of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Project. They are a group of people – scientists, filmmakers, photographers, ranchers, and others – who are doing a 100 day trip hiking, kayaking, or horseback riding through Florida to promote the creation of wildlife corridors. Their work is inspiring and something I’m extremely passionate about. I’m working on a story for New Roots News, so I won’t talk too much about the great things they’re accomplishing (check out the article).

The leader of this expedition is Carlton Ward, Jr. He is a Florida environmental photographer and one of the people I’ve looked up to in attempting to make it in the world of photography. He’s worked with numerous conservation campaigns, is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and has started the organization LINC, which aims to protect FL’s natural and cultural heritage through art. Pretty much, he can’t get any cooler!

So I had the opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with him about his work on the corridor expedition. It’s pretty humbling to sit across the table from a man who’s accomplished your photography dreams and founded the organizations you aspire to be a part of. The most striking aspect of it all was how humble he was, you’d never know that this person spearheaded the modern conservation photography movement. I have to say that I never thought I’d be able to do something like this. It was pretty amazing.

He gave some advise on getting into the conservation photo field, and I pass it along here: Get involved, find a project, and publish, publish, publish. He said to find an organization, follow a project they may be involved in that you can document, something that will allow a story to progress through photos, and publish as much as you can.

Overall, it was an incredibly enlightening and inspiring experience. Something as small as some words exchanged across a table can make you want to do great things. So check out the links and follow the progress of the FL Wildlife Corridor Expedition Team – I’ll put a link in here as soon as my article is published. Their work is truly amazing!

Quintessential Safaris: Traveling Botswana

When most people think of Africa, they think of the rolling savannah, sunsets, elephants and lions. Botswana is this and more. Located in southern Africa, Botswana is land-locked between South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The country is dominated by the Kalahari Desert, the Okovango Delta, and rolling tablelands. Gaining its independence in 1966, the country is a wonderful example of how Eco tourism, when done well, can save not only the environment, but the citizens of a country. With the safari experience being well sought-after, numerous tourists visit the country every year to partake of the wildlife and wild vistas.

Our first major highlight was entering the Okovango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta. Emptying from the Okovango River into the Kalahari Desert, the influx of so much water creates a strikingly different environment to the rest of the country that is 70% desert. This also supplies the region with much needed water and allows numerous species to survive. Hosting elephants, giraffes, widlabeast, African wild dogs, lions, and baboons, the Delta is amazing ecosystem that brings out the best of the wildlife in Botswana.

After leaving the Okovango region, we headed into the Moremi Game Reserve. Different from national preserves and parks, game reserves host legal hunting of wildlife while restricting the number of people allowed into the area. While at first I was extremely put-off by the idea of hunting unique African wildlife, the guides explained that Westerners pay enormous amounts of money to shoot species that are overpopulated to begin with. The guides are generally locals so the money is going back to the community and while these trophy hunters usually only want to head of the dead animal and some photos, the rest of the meat is divided up and goes back to the community as well. One thing that I did notice about staying in a game reserve is how isolated it was. Since the number of people is restricted, we didn’t see a single other car or person that wasn’t in our group. This isolation afforded us something not experienced by the people who stay in massive game lodges. As we headed closer to the big park in Chobe, safari vans swarmed like locusts around any wildlife in the area. It definitely detracts from the “wild” experience most hope for in a safari, but it did make me appreciate the isolated days we had at the beginning of the trip.

During one night in camp, under a glowing Milky Way, we were sitting down to eat dinner when one of the cooks hurriedly ran over to our guide and whispered something in his ear. He jumped up and ran off, leaving us all to speculate as to what was going on. He came back a few minutes later, sat down, and calmly told us that a leopard was in our camp. Being a group of biology students were immediately ran off to find the leopard. A young male, he had been lured to our camp by the smell of cooking, and being a young male, recklessly decided that hanging out in a camp full of humans was pretty interesting. It was amazing to see a big cat that close, and not from the safety of a huge Land Rover.

Though that Land Rover did come in handy.  While traveling through a mopane forest (a type of tree that elephants love), we inadvertently got between a mother elephant and her calf. After some excited trumpeting, she charged out of the bush directly at the car. While sitting on top of the roof (and hanging on for dear life), our guide got into a battle with the pissed off momma. She’d charge and trumpet and the Land Rover would honk and charge (because if we didn’t charge back, she wouldn’t let up till she flipped the car and neutralized the threat)… this lasted a good minute before she finally took off back to her baby. Of all the cool experiences, I’ve had, this one has to be at the top. Charged by elephants, leopards in camp, we also had hyenas come through our camp at night and lions behind our tents. We even got the giraffes at sunset photo opportunity!

What started in the bush, surrounded by wilderness and wildlife, ended up in a colonial hotel at the top of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Nothing could be more different from camping under the stars, serenaded by lions, but after two weeks of camping and bucket showers, it was an amazing luxury. I can see why these falls are one of the Great Wonders of the World. They are stupendous! Words and photos cannot describe the sheer immensity of them. The falls create an oasis of tropical vegetation surrounded by savannah and desert. There are constant rainbows from the mist and on full moons, night rainbows (or moobows) can be seen. It was a stunning way to end an already incredible trip.

Each country I’ve visited in Africa has had its own unique experiences and it’s nearly impossible to compare them. But Botswana stands out for its constant immersion in wildlife and the sheer isolation once outside of the big parks. Camping with no other groups around, charged by elephants, leopard, hyenas and lions right outside your tent – what more could you ask for in a safari? If you’ve never been to Africa, Botswana is the quintessential gateway to a diverse and fascinating continent that has long held the imagination of generations of people.

*All photos are scans from film.

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Madagascar

Malagasy girl at sunset

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Africa. When most people think of Africa, they think of the savannah settings with elephants and giraffes walking in a perfect line as the sun sets across the landscape. I chose a different aspect of the African landscape to experience. My first trip to the continent was to Madagascar. In my mind, it was an ancient landscape, cut off millions of years ago from everything we typically associate with Africa and filled with creatures literally found no where else on Earth.

Madagascar is located off the southeastern coast of Africa. It split from the super-continent of Gondwanaland around 135 million years,  which then split from India 88 million years ago, leaving its inhabitants to evolve in isolation. The entire country is a Biodiversity Hotspot, with 80% of its plants and animals found no where else in the world. The country is divided into regions based on climate and topography: rainforests, dry forests, and spiny forests.

Antananarivo

We arrived in the capital of Antananarivo after a grueling 18 hour flight to South Africa and another 4 hour flight into Madagascar (which I almost didn’t make after leaving my passport in the hotel… and the next flight into the country was in a weeks time!). We spent the first day exploring Antananarivo. It’s a modern city, just like any other in the world. The country gained its independence from France in 1960 and the official languages are French and Malagasy.

Ringtails blocking the road

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Land of a Sunburnt Country

Raven & Kookaburra fighting outside our flat

For 2 years I had the incredible opportunity to live in Australia. Being half Aussie I had visited Australia many times, but this was my 1st chance to live overseas. My motivation in moving Down Under was to get my master’s degree, as well as catch up with my family. I had also never lived anywhere but Florida and was starting to feel stuck. After 1st moving to New Zealand for 6 months, my boyfriend and I packed up, got rid of everything (besides clothes & electronics) and moved to the furthest place possible from FL.

Opera House

Sydney is the largest city in Australia, boasting roughly 4 million people (a quarter of the country’s population) with an eclectic, cosmopolitan feel. It rivals cities like New York City, Milan, London, and LA. It’s famous harbour, stunning coastline and profusion of numerous cultures have made Sydney a stunning international city. By taking the train for two hours inland you can go from the coastline to the picturesque setting of the Blue Mountains or north and south to more stunning beaches and quaint beach towns. Taking a note from their European ancestry, Australia is a cafe culture – lots of incredible coffee houses, open air markets, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, and veggie stands. Public transportation is also very well done, allowing most people to get to home and work through the train and bus systems. Being a socialist country, they afford their citizens and residents many socio-economic benefits unheard of in America. I’ll never forget the 1st time I went to a doctor and they were so apologetic about how expensive it would be since I didn’t have my health care card yet – the wopping total of $30 blew me away!  The prime minister Julia Gillard is a self-described atheist, and people openly laugh at the creationism-evolution debate. I have to say it was all very refreshing coming from a country founded by people who were too uptight for even the British. Don’t get me wrong, all countries have their problems – immigration, lack of resources, over population. But I have to say that in watching the nightly news, I felt that the government and its public figures were very transparent. People paid attention to politics and if they were doing something the people felt was wrong, they made them atone for it. I miss that transparency of government.

Kangaroo

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Life in Aotearoa

Looking over the Cook Straight to the South Island

Almost three years ago, I up and left Florida to move by myself to New Zealand for grad school. I had been to NZ when I was 2, but had no recollection of it and had no idea what I was getting myself into. I left my government job, my house, my pets, and (temporarily) my boyfriend to move to a country most people can’t even place on a map. But if you say, “Lord of the Rings” most people will know exactly where you’re talking about (but still probably have no clue where on the planet it is).

New Zealand is beyond stunning! I had no concept of what a unique, friendly, and overall amazing country I had moved to. It consists of 2 main islands – the North and the South, with hundreds of smaller islands surrounding its shores. It also has a massive fault line running directly through the country, has more active volcanoes than any other country, and is the second closest country to Antarctica. These unique geological features have created an environment like no other. The northern part of the North Island consists of lush rainforest, with summer temperatures convincingly tropical, while the southern tip of the South Island is craggy, windblown, and utterly beautiful. Nearly 30% of the country is protected lands for national parks and conservation areas, ensuring that the unique ecosystems are protected for future generations. The wildlife is like nothing else, with the oldest living reptiles, dinosaur looking birds, and wetas (cricket-like creatures) that appear to be something out of a nightmare. You can see how it’s separation from the mega-continent of Gondwanaland millions of years ago has allowed the biodiversity to evolve into a stunning array of flora and fauna. As an aside note, there are no native mammals to New Zealand other than 1 bat species.

Tui on Flax

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Get to Know Your Community – the Tocobaga Indians. By Ihasha Horn

My boyfriend, Ihasha, and I are the Community Co-Editors for New Roots News – we work together writing features on parts of the St. Pete community that make our area a unique place to live. He usually does the writing and I do the photography, occasionally we’ll co-author a piece. This is the latest one, and the beginning of a series called “Get to know your community.” I’m particularly proud of him, and just wanted to share.

A postcard of the former Mound Park Hospital and the Indian Shell Mound.
The old wing of Bayfront Medical Center, formerly named Mound Park Hospital and the site of the Indian Shell Mound. The mound had been removed years ago, today this road is what’s left.

As we commit ourselves to the daily ventures of work and play within St. Petersburg, I wonder: How much do we know about where we live?

For example, why is the city named after a Russian metropolis? How did that come to pass? Who were the indigenous people here, or were there any? Who were the people that our parks, streets and bridges are named after and why? What did they contribute to the community? These are just some of the questions that I had when driving through Downtown St. Pete the other day.

In light of my ignorance to the history of St. Pete, and to these questions, I decided to write up a little mini-series on this matter to help readers and myself become less daft to the community’s history.  We’ll call it: “Get to know your community.”

An apologia

Much to the chagrin of textbooks and memorials downtown, I would like to begin further back then the colonization of white settlers in the area. After all, native people were here first, even though one would hardly know they ever existed at all when looking at the current narrative of our downtown landscape.

Atrocities did happen them, but that is not the focus of this series. Rather, it is mentioned simply to not further degrade and besiege a people whose land was stolen from them and thousands of years of their history all but erased. It is the very least I can do. Continue reading

Inspiration out the Front (or back) Door

Ground Orchid with ants

My backyard feels like an equatorial jungle… mixed with the FL heat and humidity of mid August, it’s almost unbearable and I’ve actively avoided venturing out there when the sun is out. However, today my boyfriend yelled that I should come see a black-racer snake in the yard. I knew he lived out there, but had never seen him so active – thanks to all that unbearable heat. He was on the hunt and while I didn’t get any good shots of him, I did notice for the 1st time all summer how beautiful just outside my door had become. There were ground orchids blooming, bananas growing, monarch butterflies having a stop over on their way to and from Mexico. The heat just added to the cocoon like feel of a jungle, and made me think of the times I actually had been in a jungle.

Frog sleeping on our pond spitter

I sometimes get caught up in thinking that I can only do my best photography when I’m in isolated, exotic locations. I’ve been very blessed in having the opportunity to do those travels, but I find that I constantly have to motive myself to do photography at home. It feels like you’ve seen it all – you drive past the same locations everyday, go to the same places on the weekend, all with a million thoughts running through your head. But there can be so many interesting aspects that we just don’t see. Continue reading