Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

IMG_9945The shell was still warm from saltwater. The perfectly formed brown and cream-colored swirls of calcium carbonate dried quickly in my hand. The empty shell was an unexpected gift, a reminder of the beauty and mystery of life in the sea.

I walked eastward in the pre-dawn light searching along the high-tide line for sea turtle tracks. The calm, clear water of the Gulf of Mexico reflected soft, pastel light that illuminated my early-morning walk with exquisite colors that made me yearn for my big Nikon…left behind on this sea turtle patrol.

IMG_9959The only tracks I discovered were those of a four-wheeled type driven by a biologist and crew who have been studying sea turtles in Alabama since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Over the past five years they have satellite tagged, drawn blood samples, conducted DNA tests and other measurable markers on our sea turtles in an effort to study where they feed and live…and probably gather a little data for evidence in the BP Deepwater Horizon legal case.

IMG_9961A report compiled by the Ocean Conservancy in 2014 stated that 1149 sea turtles were collected during the BP oil spill from April 30, 2010 to April 12, 2011. Of those 613 were dead. Out of the total number of sea turtles collected, 809 were Kemps Ridley’s…a highly endangered species. And 481 of those were dead. “Tens of thousands of sea turtles were located in coastal waters within the surface oil extent and were exposed to oil.” There were 278 sea turtle nests relocated from the Northern Gulf Coast that produced 14,700 hatchlings.

SimoneLipscomb (1)So there is a need to study sea turtles in our area and while the study sounds great, there are some things to consider. First, the satellite tags are attached to the shell with epoxy which gets quite hot as it hardens. There are nerve endings in the shell or carapace so sea turtles so they actually feel the burning of the epoxy as it hardens. When a female has completed her exhausting nesting process–heaving her 350 pound body out of the water and crawling in soft sand, digging a hole with her rear flippers, laying maybe 120 eggs, covering the hole and crawling back towards the water–she is corralled by two-legged beings, ‘burned’ with epoxy, poked with needles and held captive until the ‘glue’ hardens and the scientists have everything they need from her. Then she is released and must crawl back into the water…after being exhausted from nesting and ‘harassment’ by the team.

Harassment, in terms of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is any human-generated behavior that causes a wild animal to change his or her behavior…including feeding, watering, touching, chasing, injuring, changing habitat, etc.

SimoneLipscomb (5)No matter how much good the data does the scientists…or sea turtles…it is a very stressful process for the mother turtles.

According to a report released by the biologist, they have tagged 59 females (that’s perhaps 15% of the Northern Gulf of Mexico population…a large sample for scientists). They concluded that one-third of the small and declining population live year-round in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. They want to continue tracking and studying sea turtles to test whether they revisit the same feeding areas and this gives new possibilities for management and conversation practices.

What if 15% of the total population…the tagged turtles…. are in some way damaged from the very process that is supposed to help the species? How many tagged sea turtles is enough? How much data is enough?

SimoneLipscomb (6)I have attended two of the debriefings done by the scientists after their tagging season here and saw how the data and the drive for more data seemed to overshadow the species they intend to protect. Watching the scientists light up when describing numbers or capturing male loggerheads by jumping on their backs while the turtles are swimming… bothered me. Is collection of data the prize, the goal? How does long-term concern of the individually tagged animals enter into the equation? It’s easy for humans to say, it doesn’t hurt the turtles, but where is long-term research and evidence to back-up that statement?

The government won’t take action against business unless there are very specific and detailed data showing how the species is being harmed from corporate functions (fossil fuel industry as one example, commercial fisheries is another). So scientists have to focus on numbers…the only thing the government seems to understand….or maybe the only thing scientists understand. It could be very easy to lose track of the health of individual animals while wanting to save an entire species. But this only supposition on my part.

SimoneLipscomb (4)For many years I have volunteered with wildlife biologists and most are very dedicated, caring individuals. I have had discussions with some of them about the issues addressed in this commentary. I hope they can understand how their actions might look to those of motivated to act solely out of compassion and love.

Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data
Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data

Waking an endangered northern flying squirrel in the high altitudes of the Blue Ridge Mountains during intense cold to weigh them, measure their back leg and tag them seems edgy. But they must have their numbers to justify continued endangered status. I assisted with this research and it bothered me because it seemed to endanger an endangered species…to collect data to justify its status as endangered. (Twisted??)

Sea turtles here in Alabama have been poked, prodded, tagged now for the past several years. Can’t they just be left to nest in peace? But no, numbers are needed…more, more, more numbers.

While earning my undergraduate degree at Auburn University I took a wildlife conservation class and learned the history of this endeavor. Science has evolved through the years and thankfully moved to a more compassionate way of studying species, but I think it has a long way to go.

My theory: Scientists become hyper-focused on numbers and data because that’s the only way they can get the money to fund more studies to prove to the government that the species is endangered, threatened or healthy. I can imagine that their original intention to help wildlife must become a frustration to them as they have to work within a broken system focused on money, money…money.

Last night I was reading a chapter in a book by Jim Nollman. It was about his time spent with orca in Buddy’s Cove, British Columbia.  He describes the non-stop ‘researchers’ who visit the whales and spend hours each day in small boats chasing them or the film crews who are equally aggressive in their pursuit of orca. Their justification is to help orca but in the truest sense, this is harassment. And the government issues permits to allow it.

SimoneLipscomb (3)I totally understand the need to study wild animals in order to provide data that gives proof to the government of what’s supposedly happening so that laws and rules and status changes can be implemented. But a red flag seems appropriate to raise when the welfare of the species they are trying to ‘protect’ comes into question from the research practices. Animals harassed long-term due to research become stressed. Perhaps we need to look at the practices of science that insist on data to prove anything. So it’s not as simple as finger-pointing at the government or corporations or scientists. Perhaps the process of research has never really taken deeper issues of quality of life and respect into consideration.

Can science, common sense and compassion coexist? It is a question yet to be answered. The sea holds many mysteries. Humans who think they can unravel the mysteries without common sense and compassion will never fully understand the very thing they think they are protecting. I wonder if some scientists feel as if they have to sell their soul, little-by-little, as they work within such a warped model to protect wildlife that live in environments highly damaged due to human exploitation.

SimoneLipscomb (8)
Humans can justify just about anything in the name of science. Governments can refuse to take protective action unless there are years of data. Corporations know this and profit from it. And what about the wildlife? Indeed…what about the wildlife.

SimoneLipscomb (9)

Sea, Stars and Sighs

Sea, Stars and Sighs

IMG_6367I arrived at the beach as the sun sank below the bank of clouds on the western horizon. As the soft, white sand squeaked under my feet on the path, I crested the top of the dune. The most beautiful sunset of my life unfolded over the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to check the sea turtle nest but first grabbed my phone to take a few photos….and began my mantra: oh my god thank you this is beautiful thank you thank you thank you….(breathe in…..breathe out).

Knowing that the nest would most likely hatch this evening, I hurriedly set up my chair and dropped jacket and water bottle on the chair and walked into the tarped nest. As soon as I put the stethoscope into my ears the sounds of cascading sand and turtles crawling just beneath the surface was loud. I knelt in the cool sand, having to ignore the brilliant sunset, and concentrated. One, two, three, four, five…….fifteen, sixteen….short break then one, two, three….sixteen…, two, three….and for probably twenty minutes there were cascading sounds which is pretty much a sign of eminent exit from the nest. Which, in turtle time, means a few minutes to hours. Turtles operate on instinct and use very soft chirping and grunting sounds to help coordinate their exit and crawl to the sea.

IMG_6363After last evening’s call to team members about cascades deeper in the nest, resulting in several team members coming out, I wasn’t about to once again tell folks to come until there was a physical change to the nest. I got up, got the shovel and neatened the shallow trench, looked for ghost crab holes that might harbor predators to our little turtle buddies, and then went back to view the nest. In just a few short minutes the top had dropped.

My heart raced as I texted two of our team members: Nest dropped. Come now!

I lifted the predator screen a bit so they could escape without walking on the wire mesh, rechecked the glove supply and waited. By then the beautiful colors had faded and the gray of twilight had arrived. The moon, over half-way full, lit up wispy clouds. One at a time, three of my teammates arrived and we took turns listening and quietly observing the nest.

As often happens with sea turtles, they are in no hurry to exit their nest that has been their home for fifty-something days. Over the past five days we had heard sounds that evidenced hatching. Slowly each one makes his or her way nearer the surface where they usually wait until most are able and ready to join in for a massive exit. Two nights ago one scout had exited during the night and made it to water. Tonight the gang was gathering.

My over-fifty knees grew weary of kneeling outside the tarp peering in at the gathering mass of dark, little hatchlings. I walked out to the edge of the water and simply breathed in the beauty of the evening. Stars peeked through wispy clouds, small waves rolled to the shore….moonlight reflected on the surface of the sea. It was a night that reached out to grab anyone willing to be taken into its grasp.

It’s challenging to describe the raw, primal beauty witnessed and experienced when midwifing sea turtles. Watching and listening to their process is beautiful but there is another very personal transformation that can happen in the moonlight, at the edge of the Ocean, exposed to the instinctual wisdom of this reptile species. As much as I enjoy writing, it always frustrates me when I attempt to convey what happens within me during these turtle nights.

I feel one with the Universe….I feel the energy of life filling me….the Ocean speaks to me through the sound of waves and the moonlight dancing on the its waves….there is a sense of Oneness with all life…I feel a part of everything and everyone….I feel surrounded by love…and yet these attempts to describe it seem so hollow compared to the actual transcendental experience.

After a while of feeling blissed-out and rebalanced, I walked back to where the other turtle gals were kneeling and peeking over the tarp. The surface of the nest was thick with dark, fat baby loggerhead sea turtles. Those on top were resting and moved only when the mass below them moved as one. A surge from below them appeared to make the entire group breathe as one. The moonlight illuminated this so we could watch.  (We don’t use lights, not even red, safety lights, when they are emerging).

Finally, after being amazing even more (if that’s possible) by these instinctually-wise reptiles, one started crawling which caused the rest to awaken from their nap. Down the dune, between the tarp they crawled. We expected them to head straight for the moonlight, which was almost perfectly aligned due south of the nest. They, however, had other ideas.

IMG_6365After we rounded up little ones headed in every direction and had safely seen over 100 babies to the water, one of my teammates said, “Bet you never thought watching turtles hatch was aerobic exercise.” We all laughed but it was as if they had no sense of direction and ignored the moonlight…odd. There were no major lights from near-by houses so we weren’t really sure why their wires were crossed. Several had to be encouraged into the water, even after they had a short swim. Too late to change your mind now kiddos…it’s time to go for your destiny!

We cooled off a bit, calmed down and visited with each other before we dispersed. One sweet turtle volunteer stayed behind to keep watch for others we could hear working their way up through the nest.

IMG_6364So that’s what it’s like when sea turtles exit their nest. Sometimes they crawl as a group to the water and swim off like well-behaved kids and then there are nights like tonight. All are magical, all teach me about the incredible instinctual wisdom they have as wee babes, and there is always some mystical experience that emerges, at least for me, from exposure to the sea, stars, sand, and turtles.

I breathe in….I breathe out…I am grateful.


Stars Over Alabama…Sea Turtles

Stars Over Alabama…Sea Turtles

photo 2The early evening was quite exquisite as it unfolded from layers of colors painting the sky. A steady but gentle breeze kept bitting flyers away and kept the air cool. Soft, white sand moved underfoot as I walked over the dune to join my teammates near a nest that was due to hatch. One hundred fifty loggerhead sea turtle eggs had been producing active hatchlings over the past few days and when I listened with the stethoscope at noon, the high level of activity gave me hope that tonight would be the night they would make the journey to their new home…the sea.

photo 3I settled into my beach chair and adjusted the back so I could gaze into the kaleidoscope of color above me. Of course I left my big Nikon at home and had only my iPhone to attempt to capture the beauty. We took turns listening to the turtles through headphones as they worked their way up from nearly two feet under the sand. We united with excitement as their work was almost non-stop.

The night was so welcoming to us and the newly hatched loggerheads. The nearly full moon arched across the Gulf of Mexico and we hoped it would encourage the babies to continue their climb.

photo 5
At midnight the first babies appeared.

At midnight, the first nose appeared in our monitor screen. WOO HOO! We tend to get our gloves on too soon sometimes. We wear gloves in case we have to help one that loses his or her way and tries to climb toward a porch light or street light or condo lights down the beach. I was one of the counters so I got in position and then realized it could be a while as the first ones to the top of the nest generally rest a while until their brothers and sisters join them.

Gradually more little ones begin to emerge.
Gradually more little ones begin to emerge.

Finally, I stretched out on the sand and laid gazing into the starry sky. The sand was a bit chilly but it felt quite good on my back. The moon couldn’t obscure the bright stars and I found myself lost in star energy while my body remained grounded on the Earth. As I relaxed my eyes and breathed in the sweet cosmic energy, I felt a subtle yet powerful shift within myself. I felt transported to another dimension and went into a meditative state. Then….a small, human head poked up from behind me and two eyes met mine from an upside-down perspective.

“May I help you?” I quietly asked. “What are you doing?” the boy asked.

“I’m looking at the stars,” I replied. “Oh,” he said and then added, “When are the turtles gonna hatch?”

We continued a quiet conversation until he got bored and wandered off. I continued to lay in surrender to the night, to the turtle’s time frame and released my need to hurry or push.

photo 6
The nest grows darker with hatchlings as they prepare to ‘boil’ out of the nest.

I stood up after a while and went over to the iPad monitor where the infared camera was delivering a play-by-play of the progress. The sand appeared to be breathing as it swelled and bulged and moved as more babies made their way to the surface. I began videoing at the suggestion of our team leader and within seconds the ‘boil’ started. All those sleepy, resting turtles were catapulted into action and thus began the next step of the journey for this group of loggerhead sea turtles.

It’s past 2am but I needed to wind down a little. The shooting star that streaked across the sky on my way home topped off the evening nicely. I wonder if it would be too much trouble to ask my cats for a sleep-in morning….

How Do I Love?

How Do I Love?

photo 4The Sunday morning sea turtle patrol began so soft, so beautiful. Arriving at the east end of the wildlife refuge, I paused to give thanks for wild places and lands that are set aside for wildlife. So calm and still was the air, so peaceful that soft, white sand…I felt immediate inner calm.

photoWithin moments of reaching the edge of saltwater, where land and sea meet, an immediate diffuse glow of rose illuminated the clouds and swept over water. I paused to take a few photographs with my phone and record a short video to share. And then suddenly the sky turned gray. Not long afterwards, so did my mood.

My phone buzzed with a text from my friend and team leader Sherry. She needed help in another section. A nest had hatched several days early and very unexpectedly and tiny tracks led everywhere except the water, where they needed to go. Being only a third of the way through my mile and a half patrol, I texted a friend who lives in the same section who would be helping track the turtles and asked her to pick me up at my exit point. Then I kicked into high gear.

The sand was super-soft this morning so walking was difficult but I had to get finished quickly so I started running while looking for nesting tracks. It felt like quicksand even in my 5-Finger running shoes but I managed to do what felt like a bull-doze run to finish.

photo 4When Cathy and I arrived at the house, the weekly renters saw us and started directing us to hatchlings that had come under the house in which they were staying. There were tiny sea turtle tracks everywhere…everywhere except where they were supposed to be. I followed the inch-and-a-half wide tracks to find babies dead and covered with fire ants. They had crawled under the house, into the driveway, into the roadway, near ghost crab holes, over dunes and dunes and dunes but mostly the largest group went due east toward the bright condo lights of Gulf Shores. And so….with foxes and ghost crabs and other predators…well, you know.

Fire ants covering one of the many hatchlings who became disoriented due to lights on homes after the nest hatched.
Fire ants covering one of the many hatchlings who became disoriented due to lights on homes after the nest hatched.

With a heavy heart I helped in the recovery efforts of those precious ones that died due to fire ants. I, along with four other teammates, followed tracks as they zig-zagged…obviously trying desperately to find their way to the sea. Intermixed with baby turtle tracks were fox tracks and ghost crabs. As I gently picked up the still-soft bodies, my salt-water tears splashed, reminding me of the tears their mother shed as she laid her nest of hope.

Eleven babies were found...all dead due to disorientation in the dunes and fire ants.
Eleven babies were found…all dead due to disorientation in the dunes and fire ants.

Hope? Every nest is one of hope. Sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act due to their threatened status. Our volunteer group originally began due to instances just like this where babies were crawling toward porch lights, street lights and condo lights rather than to the water. And sadly, most tourists have no idea that their lights cause such damage, even today when green shirts walk the Alabama shore every morning from May to September patrolling our shores for sea turtle tracks.

This nest hatched early without any of the usual signs of hatching so we weren’t there to act as midwives to the babies to guide them to water. In the dark of the night, they erupted in a frenzy with one intention: crawl home. Unfortunately I found only four tracks that led into the water but hopefully there were more. Out of probably 120 eggs, this was indeed a great loss.

simonelipscomb (6)As I was driving to have breakfast with two of my turtle friends, I listened to my heart as it tapped a steady rhythm of love for the turtles and yet I heard myself saying how much I disliked humanity for its careless destruction of all things innocent. I felt love for wildlife and wild things. And then…then I heard a question: How do I love? Is it possible to love sea turtle hatchlings passionately, deeply and yet close my heart to humanity?

simonelipscomb (4)The duality of the work I do haunts me. I love nature so deeply, so profoundly yet there’s the human element that always trips me up and causes frustration and anger to arise. Yet if I’m in a state of anger and frustration can I also–at the same time–love sea turtles, dolphins, whales…the Ocean? Oh…. I got it: it’s not possible to compartmentalize love.

simonelipscombIt felt like a wise part of me awakened and said clearly: Love has no boundaries. You either love or you don’t.  The lyrics from Will Kimbrough‘s song Love is  the Solution started playing in my mind: “Love the sinner, love the sin.” For the first time, in a long time, I understood. I got it. Thank you sea turtles who continually take me to the depths of who I am and meet me there in the shadows, in the light. And Will…thanks for a song that sums it up perfectly.

If we truly open our hearts in love, we don’t have the option of choosing who or what receives our love. Love is the answer. It is the solution. It is everything.

Lyrics to Love is the Solution by Will Kimbrough:

Love is the solution
Love your neighbors; love your friends
Love yourself if you can bear it
Love and laugh and heal and mend

Love is all that matters
Love the rainy days
Love will set your soul afire
Love will take your pain away

Love the rich and powerful 
Love the poor and meek
Love the jerk who honks in traffic
Love the carnival geek

Love is all there really is 
Love unlocks your mind
Love will make a fool of you
So love the fool in kind

Love is all your really need 
Love is all you’ll find
Love is the solution
Love the traffic lights and signs

Love the lovers loving
Love the park bench where they kiss
Love everything you fear the most 
And love the fear you miss

Love the warrior and the preacher
Love the grumpy old men
Love the sun and moon and stars
Love the sinner; love the sin

Love the garbage in the gutter
Love the gutter; love the drunks
Love your father; love your mother
Love your babies; love the punks


Tarpon Buzz and Turtle Love

Tarpon Buzz and Turtle Love

SimoneLipscomb (1)The sun set over the mountains far from our entry point. Golden sky glowed with lingering day as night descended.

Twilight found me slipping beneath the surface….again. Into the turquoise water that appeared gray as light faded until my bright light illuminated it.

Small silver flashes zoomed past as I slowly kicked into the deep. Nighttime on the reef…a time of rest for some and action for others.

Not long into the dive a large hawksbill sea turtle was spotted foraging for food. We directed our lights away from it so it wouldn’t be blinded but another diver started shining his light directly on the turtle and began chasing it. Of course this lead to me kicking into high gear–quite literally–out of my relaxed blissful, happy place and I begin flashing his face. He didn’t stop until I intercepted and was about to grab his arm and direct the light away from the turtle. I felt molten lava stir within as this endangered species was harassed by a careless diver.

Once the turtle was safely moving on without the spotlight, my dive buddy and I moved away from the group and found in front of us another hawksbill, a bit smaller, and so we hid our lights so as not to reveal her presence.  We floated in the dark, gray ocean, barely able to see the outline of the turtle as we stayed between it and the other diver who was still searching for the original turtle. With loving hearts we fiercely protected our sea turtle friend.

After turning around and going into the shallower sand flat, tarpon began hunting with our lights. We came into contact with several other divers who were photographing and videoing the frenzy of these large, silver fish indulging in some easy dinners. We broke away from the crowd and swam on but had gotten just past the mosh pit of people when I felt a rush by my right side as a huge tarpon buzzed past me, using my bright cave light as a feeding beam.

The rush of such an animal, over five feet in length with shiny, silver plate-like scales and large eyes, zooming past me barely missing my side was wild. I knew he was going to come back yet each time he buzzed me I squealed into my regulator. We played a game of hunt the fish with Simone’s light. I loved every minute of it. It’s quite possible my face hurt from smiling so much while trying to hold the regulator in my mouth.

I sit propped up in bed now, yet still underwater moving and flowing with gentle surge. Nearly four hours were spent beneath the surface, communing with the Ocean and many creatures that live within Her. It was a dive of strong emotions….feeling protective, feeling ecstatically playful and mostly feeling immense love for all life. Oh…and grateful. Very grateful.