Talk to Strangers

Communication is easy these days… but it also is not.

With the plethora of electronic devices and media sharing platforms right at our fingertips, we are bombarded with information about so many different things that it can be tough to retain the full message.

Something that struck me about my research this summer was that of the 600+ individuals who responded to my ocean awareness survey, a good majority of them indicated the Internet or social media was their preferred method of receiving information about ocean issues. This got me thinking…

Social media can be an enjoyable way to get a quick glimpse into an issue or topic relating to science and I’ll admit I’ve learned a thing or two scrolling through Facebook. But I’m not convinced something like Facebook is the best platform for the kind of communication the public needs. It’s a quick click and that’s it, since many of us don’t take the time to fully read through an article. But you can’t blame social media, because that’s what it’s there for: a convenient offering of information that we would not take the time to look up otherwise.

As sort of a theme of this summer, science communication is a crucial step toward any effort in conservation. When it boils down to it, really the objective of my summer was talking to strangers to gather useful information relating to science communication. And I found that you learn a lot just by talking to people. One thing I learned is that people generally seemed to care and be interested in the subject of ocean threats, and that was encouraging. But when they were asked on my survey whether it is easy to obtain information about the topic of ocean issues, I frequently heard individuals say something like, “I’m sure it is, but I haven’t taken the time to look!

In a way, I think I kind of stood in as the social media here. While my role wasn’t to directly educate the public, I was offering a glimpse into several ocean issues that some people had not heard about before. More often than not, those who filled out my survey told me they were going to go home and do some research on these issues because they are eager to learn more. And that was really cool to see the impact of my work.

So my simple solution is this: talk to strangers. There is such an abundance of information presented in many different ways out there on the Internet, but if we get some real conversation flowing, I think progress can be made. At the end of the day, you’re going to remember the interactions you had with people much more than those with your computer. So why not pose a question to a stranger about an environmental issue? The responses are not always going to be positive, but I am hopeful that it’s a start to getting people thinking in ways they hadn’t before.


Final Survey Count: 629 completed

Whale Count: 29 sightings

Finding a Love for the Waves

You can’t live in the Pacific Northwest having never surfed. Okay, so it’s not really like that. But most days, you’ll find the beaches here packed with surfers either on their pre-work wave riding routine, taking a quick “lunch break,” or catching the evening swell before the sun sets. If there’s any truth to the statement above, I guess I can leave here with the pride of an Oregonian.

Waves breaking at sunset. Photo: Justin Dalaba.

Since a young age, I’ve always loved watching waves and felt drawn to them, but until now I never really had a means of riding one. Having a surfboard might have helped, but there’s a difference between learning to surf and putting yourself at the mercy of a big breaker with no clue how to either escape or ride the wave. Fortunately, living within walking distance of popular surf spots this summer made my goal of learning to surf much more attainable.

Jess Vaccare (left), our instructor (middle) and myself (right) heading out to surf. Photo: Skyler Elmstrom.

There are two things you learn right away about surfing the central coast of Oregon. First, the water is cold. And that pretty much never changes. It helps coming from a background of coldwater diving, but you’re still never really prepared for when that first wave breaks over your head, sending brisk seawater down your wetsuit. Second, expect the conditions to change pretty quickly at any point in the day. It rains basically half the year here and the accompanying wind and fog can be just as enduring. I learned how brutal paddling into the wind and waves can be during my second surf session when a sunny day was quickly consumed by wind and fog. So if numb hands and salty eyes don’t bother you, this is the place to surf.

Post-surf stoke. Photo: Skyler Elmstrom.

The hardest part about surfing (from a beginner’s perspective) is getting yourself in the water and learning to read the ocean. You can really wear yourself out quickly by paddling into waves and trying to get up on every one that looks worthy of riding, but if you’re patient and wait for the right one, there’s nothing that compares to the feeling of being on your feet with gravity in your favor. For me, that lucky wave came on my second attempt. Something just felt right as I rotated around, took a few long strokes and felt the surge of water tip my board down. Once I got into my stance, it was almost effortless as I let the wave do most of the work.

Evening swell on the Oregon coast.

I was stoked. All of my irrational fears about failing and tumbling down the wave had vanished. From now on, I’ll probably always associate surfing with my first experience here on the Oregon coast. I couldn’t think of a better setting with better people to surf with. But I think half the fun of surfing is finding new places and new buddies who can share their experiences with you. I don’t think this was just another bucket list item for me; rather this will be another outlet for me to explore what’s out there before it’s gone. Our ocean is such a great resource in many ways and in order to conserve it, we first have to appreciate it and find a love for it.

Whale Said

Whales are neat. Well, that’s my opinion at least and I hope you feel the same way by the end of these short paragraphs. Recently, I’ve become so attuned to searching for whales while conducting visitor surveys on the Oregon coast that the visitors at Depot Bay ask me questions about the whales as I stand there in my ODFW hat. I graciously answer to the best of my ability, making it clear that I am far from an expert on the topic and then let them know that I am actually studying humans (but maybe we’re more or less one in the same).

Whale-watching zodiac.

I’ve been envious of the visitors who share stories about their whale watching tour in Depot Bay. It just so happens that the REU students who live next door were going whale watching this weekend and they invited the Sea Grant scholars to tag along for a discount price. I had heard a couple of months back about a whale researcher in Depot Bay, named Carrie. As it turns out, Carrie Newell was the one who generously offered the Hatfield interns a discount on a private whale-watching excursion early Sunday morning.

Carrie and the Hatfield interns spotting whales.

As if Carrie’s energy and passion for her work wasn’t encouraging enough, something that her coworker Captain Dan said out on the water really struck a cord with me. As we approached a female whale in our zodiac, she flashed her fluke and dove down, leaving everyone in a moment of silent awe. Captain Dan then started explaining to us how this whale (Ginger was her name) seems to always fluke and each of the resident whales in Oregon has their own identifiable characteristic. He said he even has suspicion that at least one of the whales intentionally tries to sneak up and startle everyone in the boat. It was then that Captain Dan said, “You know, I’ve learned a lot from Carrie and from the textbooks, but no one can teach you about the personality of these animals until you’re out here with them every day.”

Carrie Newell and her first mate Kida.

I think what Captain Dan said resonated with me for a couple of reasons. First, whales are intelligent and social animals, just like humans. Humans tend to feel a strong connection to what they can relate to. Second, I am perpetually fascinated by how little we know about our expansive ocean and find it humbling to think about. Reflecting a little more deeply on the second thought, I realized individuality defines a lot more than a biology textbook could explain. If whales really are trying to playfully spook people in a boat as Captain Dan suspects, then perhaps they really are a lot more like us than we think.

Captain Dan.

Over the years, humans and whales have had a relationship that some might call “complicated.” I think now, more than ever, through the powerful influence of media and the efforts of Greenpeace, people want to save whales and dolphins rather than exploit them as a natural resource. If we could all take the time to connect a little more closely with the environment around us, I think we might learn a lot from those who share this planet with us.

Fluke of Ginger the gray whale.

Have a Goal in Sight? Throw Yourself at it.

I don’t want to resort to the old cliché, “the mountains are calling and I must go,” but I answered that call this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time rolling ankles over stubborn roots and scrambling over precarious rocks. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find a hiking buddy, I still found it easy to justify a weekend among the peaks where John Muir felt most at home.

Hitting the trail early with a goal in view.

Back in the East, I tackled mountains every weekend I could. I come from the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, where a two-hour drive to the highest peaks in New York State coupled with a breakfast of gas station coffee and a banana is a regular Saturday routine. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I live for the 4am mornings, finding my way on the trail under headlamp, but I’ve become so accustomed to that groggy early-morning feeling that it’s almost nostalgic.

Early morning wake up with headlamp.

Once I did some research on the Cascades of Oregon and heard you could summit Oregon’s third highest peak in a day, I was up for the challenge. My tent was already in my car so I smeared some peanut butter and jelly on bread, called it a dinner and hit the road. That night, I tossed and turned on my inflatable sleeping pad, anxiously going over the hike in my mind as if it were a documentary film.

Looking down of Teardrop pool, Oregon’s highest lake, from the loose rock trail.

Now is probably a good time to acknowledge the fact that this is my first time ascending to 10,000 plus feet of elevation on-foot, not to mention that I drove from sea-level. I’ve hiked a similar prominence before, but never to an altitude this high. My body wasn’t exactly thanking me for the elevation change as my lungs panted for air and my head pounded with an unforeseen headache.

Farther than it looks, the summit looms over this steep scramble.

Like most hikes, I had reached that low feeling on the climb where I questioned if I could persist to the summit. The strangest part for me was that I could see where I was headed throughout the entire hike, but never really had a sense of how long it would take me to get there. I’m so acquainted with hiking through dense forest until the trail spits you out above the tree line just a few hundred yards from the summit. This was different.

The final steps to the summit of South Sister.

Perception is a funny thing. On a mountain, it can take your senses for a wild ride. Unsure of when the steep, scree-scrambling climb would end, I focused my eyes on my feet, switched to autopilot and let faith take me the rest of the undetermined distance to the summit. Then, as quickly as the questionable feelings set in, I was confident and pulsing with adrenaline as I lifted my eyes. The summit view was indescribable and clear enough to see as far as Mount Rainier. My head was clear too and I questioned why I even questioned myself in the first place.

Mission accomplished!

In that moment, the summit is the quite literally the peak of the experience. But in the end, it’s about the journey and the people you meet. I was fortunate enough to make friends with a couple from Australia who became my hiking buddies as we followed the loose-cinder trail back down the south side of the volcanic peak. There’s something to be said about a cooperative crew of people on the same path with the same goal in mind.

Stopped for a swim at Moraine Lake after descending.

Don’t Be Shellfish

Eat local. That’s a phrase we hear fairly often these days, especially with the Locavore movement and all its counterparts. After learning throughout my college years how to be a more conscious consumer of food, I’ve always found it both challenging and exciting to eat locally and seasonally.

Two locals harvest their dinner at North Beach, Newport OR.

Here on the Oregon coast, seafood is what’s in season, but of course there are many challenges to being a conscious consumer of seafood. A large part of this is due to a disconnect between consumers and where their seafood is coming from. So how do you ensure the food you’re eating is local, in season and sustainable? One solution (and a fun one at that) is to harvest for yourself!

My roommate Ed digs for razor clams near the North Jetty in Newport, OR.

I have to admit, one of the most exciting outings so far in Oregon has been right across the bay. As the tide goes out at the beach, there is a whole community of marine organisms living right beneath your feet. Some of them might make a tasty meal if you’re lucky enough and know what to look for. Razor clams are not the easiest clams to pursue if you’re an amateur, but certainly worth the effort.

Pacific Razor Clam.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with catching a razor clam, it goes a little something like this:

  • Step 1: Acquire shovel and bucket
  • Step 2: Find a beach where razor clams may live and wait for a minus low tide
  • Step 3: Run around stomping your feet and look for a tiny depression to form in the sand around you
  • Step 4: Start digging faster than the clam can burrow

Of course that’s not exactly how everyone does it, but it’s sort of a cool excuse to stomp around on the beach and dig holes in the sand just like we all did as a kid. Not to mention, you really have to be sharp with your vision to spot a razor clam (pun intended). A “show,” as they call it, is the little dimple that forms when the clam feels you stomping and starts to dig toward safety. As you can imagine, with an entire community of burrowing organisms (snails, shrimp, crabs, etc) making their own holes and mounds of sand, it can be quite confusing to know what you’re looking for.

Ed digs through a wet slurry of sand and seawater to catch a razor clam.

Once you find a promising show, that’s when the real fun starts. Razor clams can dig fast, and they go deep. These efficient diggers extend their feet downward, while mixing water with sand to make a quicksand mixture that allows them to escape quickly. If you’re an amateur, like my roommate and myself, you may sometimes find dinner slipping away from your fingers after wrestling with a thick slurry of wet sand.

Ed cleans a razor clam to prepare for dinner.

After a morning of chasing razor clams into the sand, Ed and I were able to replace the calories burned digging with a fulfilling meal from local catch. Additionally, I must add that the limit for Pacific Razor Clams is 15 per person per day, but just a few fillets can make a satisfying dinner for one. Catching your limit will definitely help you feed your friends and family, but with sustainability in mind, I might suggest only taking what you need, from different areas of the beach in order to let populations recover. As much fun as it can be to chase razor clams, I think it’s important that we do let some get away, for their sake and for the promise of local, healthy food for generations to come.

A hearty meal of three oven-fried razor clam filets.

Wandering, Not Lost.

One of my connecting flights between the East and West Coast.

After a lot of traveling over the past two weeks, I’ve finally had a chance to rest and reflect. It’s been a mix of both personal and work travel totaling to just about 7,000 miles between plane and car. In short, I now have over 300 completed ODFW ocean literacy surveys and a sister who is married. Admittedly, those are two very distinct accomplishments to group together, but that’s just how busy the past couple of weeks of travel have been.

Oregon beach-goers, whom I would ask to take an ocean awareness survey as part of my work with ODFW.

Coastal visitor intercept surveys.

I wrapped up another successful round of sampling on the coast immediately after spending a week on the East coast for my sister’s wedding. If flying from coast-to-coast wasn’t exhausting enough, getting right back into the groove of driving from beach-to-beach conducting ocean visitor surveys on the Oregon coast definitely added to my collective sleep debt. I’ve been adjusting back to a normal sleep schedule, but all in all, it’s been a productive time and I’ve had a lot of time to think about my personal goals.

Twin Rocks

I’ve never really been able to sit still in one place for long. My built-in drive to constantly stay on the move often it brings me to new places that lead to great new adventures. That’s pretty much the story of how I found my way here (in Newport, Oregon). I went into this summer knowing that I would be leaving a lot behind back in the east, but I maintained the commitment to return home for my sister’s wedding. I guess what I’m getting at here is that travel can take a toll on you physically, and it may not be the most environmentally friendly lifestyle, but it certainly has opened doors to new adventure, education and life direction.

Oswald Beach

As I mentioned earlier, all this travel has given me time to consider my personal goals. Two of my greatest passions are conservation and photography. Between listening to podcasts and catching flights, I’ve been thinking of ways to combine the two into a life career. No matter what goal you have in mind, whether it’s attainable or not, I’ve learned that you just have to throw yourself at it. There’s no right or wrong direction, but if you wander enough, you’ll eventually find where you want to go (and learn a lot along the way).

Survey Count: 314

Whale Count: Still 8


In Full Swing

Somehow, we’re already halfway through the summer. After weeks of preparation and design, this was my first week in the field conducting surveys. Aside from this being a short workweek following the July 4th holiday, the days sure seemed to fly by much quicker than usual. Of course it helps when your office is the Oregon coast and your job is talking to new people. Additionally, I spotted 8 whales off the coast while sampling… my favorite marine animal!

Enjoying the view while conducting surveys at Otter Rock.

This first round of surveys proved successful, without too many visitors reluctant to participate. Surprisingly, the rain and wind doesn’t stop visitors from exploring Oregon’s many coastal attractions. Along the central coast, I met visitors from Germany, Italy, Brazil and Canada. In the coming weeks I will have a change of scenery as we begin sampling on the North and South coast, which I have yet to explore for myself.

Rainy day sampling in Yachats.

Living on the central coast has given me an advantage when answering questions that visitors have while they are filling out their ocean awareness survey. As we expand our sampling range, I will be seeing new places for the first time, along with some of the coastal visitors. If all goes according to plan, I will have traveled the Oregon coast from North to South six times in total by the end of this summer. That’s a lot to pack into the few remaining weeks, but that’s not all I have on my agenda when it comes to exploring Oregon.

Planning a fishing trip “on the fly.”

As time flies by, I’m taking every chance I can to slow down and take it all in. This weekend, I went exploring “on the fly.” Despite some stormy weather that inhibited my prior weekend plans, Sunday shaped up to be fairly nice and I grabbed my fly-fishing rod and took a dirt road into the Siuslaw wilderness to unwind. Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Fly- fishing generally takes a little more effort and planning, but once you find your spot, it can be one of the most meditative ways to refresh your mind in nature. Of course I’m biased, but there is compelling evidence to support that fly-fishing is truly a natural stress reliever.

Resident cutthroat trout I caught (and released) in the Oregon wilderness.

As my previous blog alluded to, there is good reason to spend our free time out in nature, rather than indoors and in front of a screen. The only trouble I’ve found with spending time in the outdoors is that the more you seek new places and adventures, the more you find you’re missing out on. Oregon is loaded with more opportunities than ten weeks can fulfill, but it’s a matter of making the best of every opportunity as it comes.


Survey Count: 145

Whale Count: 8

More “Green Time,” Less “Screen Time”

I’m going to play Nature’s advocate for a moment. Let’s be honest, many of us are bombarded with constant reminders to unconsciously check our phone or computer on a daily basis. It’s easy to become tied to an electronic device without realizing. For Smartphone users, the convenience of having our entire agenda and communication network stored electronically means that we’re checking our phones from the moment we wake up. Whether it’s the stream of emails, demanding social media notifications or a missed message from friends and family, there is no doubt all the time spent on electronics can have some effect on our mental health.

The most extensive study to date estimates that people across all age groups in the United States check their phone on average 46 times per day, which totals to upwards of 8 billion times a day that all Americans are collectively checking their phones. It has been suggested that as a society, Americans have become so accustomed to daily “screen time” at a young age, that they are getting significantly less “green time.” Only 10 percent of teens in America spend time outside every day, according to a recent Nature Conservancy survey. The documentary film, Play Again, also explores the decrease in “green time” and increase in “screen time” through the case of seven teenagers from Portland, Oregon. Despite being surrounded by ample opportunity to explore outdoors, these young Oregonians exemplify the troubling estimations of American youth spending an average of 7-½ hours per day in front of a screen. As I alluded to in my earlier blog post, the more connection we have to the natural world around us, the more likely we will care enough to conserve it, but have we lost that crucial connection by spending less time outdoors?

Spending green time on a hiking trail in Willamette National Forest.

On a related note, surveys often reveal a good bit of insight into a larger question or issue, which can help inform where changes need to be made. That is exactly the focus of my work at the moment, as I have tirelessly been drafting and rewriting an ocean literacy survey to assess the knowledge of the general public who visits the coast of Oregon. One of the things that struck my curiosity as I wrote and rewrote this survey in collaboration with the ODFW Marine Reserves team has been where individuals receive their information about ocean-related issues. I am interested to find if there is some sort of link between the sources of media where individuals receive information and the gap in knowledge relating to ocean health threats.

I’ll admit, it’s a bit ironic and probably hypocritical for me to play nature’s advocate after spending several full workweeks indoors on a computer, but I took advantage of a three-day weekend off work to ensure that I refreshed my mind in the outdoors. And let me tell you, it worked.

“Immersing” in nature at Tamolitch Blue Pool

Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah argues that after three days of wilderness backpacking, our brains perform significantly better on creative problem solving tasks. He calls this the three-day effect, where immersing oneself in nature for long enough can clean one’s “mental windshield” that becomes clouded over from the stress of being indoors. Other studies have shown that it doesn’t take that much to recharge our cognitive function, as just 25 minutes of “green time” can give our brain the rest it needs from “screen time.”

Gazing into the Milky Way from my tent at Blue River Reservoir.

As a frequent saying goes, “there is no wifi in the woods, but I promise you’ll find a better connection.” Driving through Willamette National Forest this weekend, I realized it would have been nice to have service while searching for a campsite, but instead I had to problem solve on my own. With my phone switched off and stowed away, I managed to find an ideal campsite and spent the night losing track of time while gazing at the countless stars. And let me tell you, waking up to the sound of birds chirping and the sunlight penetrating through the trees into your tent feels much more refreshing than the harsh sound of an alarm clock in a dark bedroom. Many others must have received the “green time” memo as well, as all of Willamette was flooded with campers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Bearing in mind the statistics of recent “screen time” surveys, it’s a restoring feeling to see others catch up on their vitamin “N.”



Tide Poolers

Tide pools are the wildflower bloom of the marine world. If you time it right, the colorful array of life is revealed from beneath the ocean cover for a brief, yet exciting period of time. Some of the marine life in tide-pools lives between two worlds, spending half of their time fully submerged under seawater and the other half in the air we breathe. I think tide pools are one of the most intriguing ecosystems that exist on this planet.

purple urchins in the tide pools at Yaquina Head

Why is it that these creatures, that become exposed when the tide goes out, can flaunt such vibrant colors and shapes? Wouldn’t they all want to camouflage themselves as rocks to avoid getting eaten? The sun-orange sea stars, huckleberry-purple urchins, seafoam-green anemones, and assorted hermit crabs (to name a few) sport their colors loud and proud. For some of these organisms, it is still not known for certain what the purpose of their vivid coloration is, but one thing is known for certain: this attractive marine life display draws eyes from across the globe to the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

Sea stars and anemones at low tide

This past Saturday, June 25th, we were lucky enough to have a negative-low tide, which (as the name implies) means the lowest tide retreats to a negative number of feet relative to average sea level. For tide-poolers, that means there is a very good chance of seeing the unique marine life that resides at the farthest edge of the low-tide water line. Of course, I am just one of many tide-pool chasers. For many coastal residents and marine enthusiasts alike, tide-pools are an important place. A recent study in 2013 found that exploring tide-pools was among the top three most common activities for Oregon’s marine reserve visitors. While it is encouraging to a conservationist for there to be so much interest in this natural resource, too many visitors can be harmful to such a fragile environment. I’m sure the tide pool residents wouldn’t be pleased to have an army of land-dwelling visitors tromping all over their property.

Purple urchin at negative low tide

In the coming weeks, as I finish up some prep work and solidify my work schedule, I look forward to exploring more of the unique places along the coast, but also learning about the people who use them. As part of my work this summer, I hope to find out how informed coastal visitors feel about issues related to marine areas in order to better inform ocean managers about any potential knowledge gaps or concerns from the general public about our oceans. While I haven’t been able to immediately work out in the field, the work I will eventually be doing along the coast is a crucial element to bettering our understanding of marine reserves. Until then, I’ll continue to familiarize myself with new places in Oregon during my free time!

Angus exploring the tide pools

Thinking Beneath the Surface

Photo of my first encounter with a sea turtle.

Ever hear of the saying, “the head, the hand and the heart?” I’ve learned that thinking, doing and feeling are key elements to bringing about change. If you know about an issue and you can feel the impacts of it, then you are more likely to care about it and take action. The same is true for me with my first encounter with the great sea turtles of Hawaii. When I was younger, I vividly remember the first time I came across one of these massive creatures on the beach and my heart raced as I approached this mysteriously large being that was probably much older than myself. On June 16th this week, people across the globe took part in world sea turtle day in an effort to spike awareness and emphasize the importance of their conservation.

When it comes to conservation problems, there is a lot to think about. In 2005, bycatch accounted for about 17% of all U.S. commercial fisheries catch. This has been a huge problem as a result of heavy fishing pressure with non-selective fishing gear, especially large purse seine and bottom trawl nets. To give perspective, the world’s largest supertrawler, the Atlantic Dawn, is longer than one and a half football fields with an otter trawl big enough for a 747 jet to pass through. As you might imagine, any fish or marine mammal that becomes trapped in this net has no chance of escaping and many in fact drown before being tossed back overboard upon retrieval. As horrifying as this may sound, it is our love for seafood and the sky rocketing demand to feed the population that has led to the implementation of such efficient technology.

So what is being done? For sea turtles, there has been a bit of a success story thanks to the efforts of conservation groups. It is now required by law that shrimp fishermen use Turtle Excluder Devices (or TEDs) to let sea turtles or other large bycatch escape deadly trawl nets. While sea turtle mortality has been reduced by 90 percent as a result, all six species of turtles found in U.S. waters are endangered and still faces threats of survival each year. The decline in marine species stretches far beyond sea turtles, as many species may be slipping into extinction without our knowing.

Otter Rock Marine Reserve.

That is where marine reserves are important. A Marine Reserve constitutes areas “protected from all extractive activities, except as necessary for monitoring or research to evaluate reserve condition, effectiveness, or impact of stressors.” This differs from a Marine Protected Area in that some fishing may be allowed rather than closing off all extractive activities. Both of these are important efforts to reduce fishing pressure on fish that have been harvested at an unsustainable rate.

Just as the sea turtles of Hawaii ignited my passion for their conservation, I see my position this summer with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as an opportunity to help bring attention to issues of ocean conservation. I look forward to better understanding the ways humans value, use and depend on marine resources and how Marine Reserves play a part in that. We’ve only just begun to skim the surface but there’s much more to dive into.