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PONDER Blog

Dr. Seuss and the Sea

Chelsea Behymer

Often we travel to specific places, seeking an iconic one-time experience. And if we don't find it, we leave disappointed. But for a place like New Zealand, it takes more than a single visit to gain this overall iconic experience. Even over the course of my multiple visits this year, not a single sailing in Milford Sound has been alike, and this trip, the Tasman Sea was more like Tasman lake.  Life is dynamic. Things grow, move, and it takes time to really pick up on the patterns or cycles that can be summed up into a general description of a place. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to put in the time with places like New Zealand that will allow me to characterize them, to begin to understand them enough to share them. But there will always be surprises, reasons to come back for more. Last week, I found myself back there sooner than planned, and found a pattern. 

 An unexpected encounter with a NZ Sea Lion, among the world's rarest pinnipeds. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. 

An unexpected encounter with a NZ Sea Lion, among the world's rarest pinnipeds. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. 

In just a short time, I was reminded of what I learned on my first trip to New Zealand ... the importance of biodiversity and the collective efforts of local communities to maintaining this unique variety of living things that is so important to the health of any ecosystem. My appreciation for these things really deepened in another visit to Zealandia, where its clear the remaining native forest plants only stand a chance against introduced species with the help of their most important pollinators: native forest birds. Because most of these birds are also threatened by introduced species, to be able to fulfill this role, they rely on the human awareness that supports the conservation efforts there. 

 Wattlebird in Zealandia, an endemic forest bird representative of the unique biodiversity that remains. Wellington, New Zealand. 

Wattlebird in Zealandia, an endemic forest bird representative of the unique biodiversity that remains. Wellington, New Zealand. 

But the future of these & other ecosystems depends on more than on-the-ground work to conserve them. Along with my visit to Zealandia, I returned to a place that protects another special network of species in New Zealand: the South Island's Otago Peninsula. There, the staff at the Royal Albatross Center shared with me their dedication each year to the breeding success of the peninsula's most iconic species, the northern royal albatross. Sometimes this requires going so far as working with the Department of Conservation to force-feed chicks that may have lost a parent, and so are only getting half of the food they need to grow.

But they also recognize that such efforts are only successful if the birds are cared for while they are out at sea, too. So, the RAC staff also devote time to educate the public about marine debris and negative fisheries interactions that could harm the birds while they are away from their breeding grounds, out of direct care. Both the success of the birds and the success of those who work directly with them depend on the species and processes that are indirectly connected. This includes the birds' food sources, as well as what is responsible for the availability of this food resource. Today, that availability can be compromised, not only by natural cycles, but also by human interaction like single-use plastic pollution, one of the biggest threats to marine biodiversity globally. 

 Northern Royal Albatross, nesting in its place of refuge. Taiaroa Head, New Zealand. 

Northern Royal Albatross, nesting in its place of refuge. Taiaroa Head, New Zealand. 

Upon my return from New Zealand, this reminder of the power of community efforts to supporting biodiversity threatened by such interactions, was reinforced by an email I received from a family of passengers I met on a cruise two years ago in the North Atlantic. Then, I was just beginning to grasp and spread the word about the issue of plastic marine debris relative to seabirds and other surface-feeding marine life. The topic apparently resonated with the family and they took it home, taking it further than I could have envisioned. The youngest of the family, Elli, is currently raising awareness about single use plastics and their potential to harm marine life through a school-wide campaign at Friends Meeting School in Ijiamsville, Maryland with a theme based on the simple Dr. Seuss truth that "everyone, no matter how small, can make a big difference" (think The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Horton Hears A Who). The video below is a great summary of the issue she is helping to raise awareness about, and why it matters to all of us. Keep up the good work, Elli!

Be it from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, on the seemingly mythical New Zealand landscape full of species found nowhere else on the planet, or within our local communities, it's evident: "We've GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!" Inspired by facilities like Zealandia, people like the staff of the Royal Albatross Center, and communities like Elli's, let's all work together to recognize our connections to Earth's ecosystems, and realize our collective power to protect their biodiversity.