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Our Living World is Dying

Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow

 

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Date: September 8, 2006

To: Undisclosed recipients

Re: She's Beautiful...

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Gaie Alling

Co-founder and President, The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation

From an early age, Gaie found herself surrounded by the sea and interacting with its' wildlife. Raised in New York , she spent vacations and summers with her grandparents on the coastlines of Maine and Georgia. During those times, she received early teachings about the environment and ecology from her grandmother, who was one of our country's early environmental activists and was heavily involved in different efforts for land conservation. Budding from her childhood experiences and her influential role-model, blossomed Gaie's deep passion for the ocean and her concern for its' health.

After graduating high school, Gaie was ripe for an adventure and decided to spend her first semester of college at sea traveling throughout the Caribbean aboard a 110ft schooner. During that experience, her group encountered a hurricane and had to sail through it. Helming the ship as it rose and sank over the massive swells, she observed many of her fellow crewmates feeling miserable and terrified. She was having the time of her life, as she felt the reckoning force of the wind, giving way to 'a-ha' moment where she thought, 'There's something here. I absolutely love this, I'm a sailor!'

Gaie then continued on to Middlebury College to pursue a degree in marine biology, taking a year abroad to study water ecology in Nepal. After graduating, she was selected as a Watson Fellow and pursued her own self-designed project for world travel! For one year, she traveled throughout China , Sri Lanka , and western Canada , chartering boats to study cetaceans (with an emphasis on white-beaked and white-sided dolphins) and to examine by-catch from the fishing industry.

Upon completing her fellowship, she joined a three year WWF expedition that was tasked to study the marine mammals in the Indian Ocean. From there, she worked for the United Nations on another marine mammal program in Sri Lanka, which was when and where the Heraclitus first sailed into her life. Aboard she met John Allen, the inventor of Biosphere 2, who happened to be looking for someone to head up the design and management of Biosphere 2's marine ecosystems. Although Gaie's professional work to date had been focused on marine mammals, she was excited about the expansive opportunity; she applied and was selected for the position!

While Biosphere 2's outside structure was being constructed (before the inside work assembling the different ecosystems commenced), Gaie continued her oceanic explorations as the Heraclitus' expedition chief, embarking on two separate expeditions. The first one took her back to the coasts of Georgia to one of her favorite childhood vacation spots: the golden isle of Wassaw. The expedition involved performing the first successful release of captive dolphins (Joe and Rosie) back into the wild. From there, she ventured with the ship to Antarctica to genetically sample the skin of humpback whales. The crew's task was to determine whether Atlantic and Pacific stocks were meeting in the Antarctic waters or whether a single stock was migrating there. The International Whaling Commission, which sets the quota for the number of whales which can 'sustainably' be taken each year from the ocean, would use their findings to decided whether the Japanese should be allotted fewer whales each year. Their findings indicated that the two stocks were indeed meeting and mating in those waters, implying greater genetic variability and meaning unchanged whaling quotas (this is a good example of how scientific findings precede and influence environmental policies). Upon returning from Antarctica in 1989, focus shifted once again; Gaie and the Heraclitus sailed to the Caribbean and Mexico to collect corals and marine species for use inside Biosphere 2.

And on September 26, 1991, Gaie became part of the eight-person team enclosed for two years inside the glass world of Biosphere 2. As the progeny of Biosphere 1 (the Earth), Biosphere 2 was a self-contained miniature world that mimicked our larger world and its' life-supporting systems. Physically cut-off from the rest of the universe (except for the flow of energy and information), the 3.15 acre laboratory was designed to learn more about our global ecological systems and man's interaction with the biosphere.

As the marine coordinator, Gaie was responsible for monitoring and conducting research on the two aquatic ecosystems; the marsh and the coral reef. As the experiment progressed, it was noticed that the coral reef was the most sensitive to environmental fluxes and responded more quickly (within hours and/or days) than any of the other ecosystems to atmospheric and water chemistry fluctuations. Inside Biosphere 2, the coral reef became the indicator biome; the Biospherians could look at their coral reef and make generalizations about the health of the rest of their world. If their coral reef was alive and healthy, it meant that the rest of their world was also well. And if their coral reef began to show signs of suffering, it meant that the rest of their biosphere was unwell as well.

By applying these findings in their inner biosphere to the outside biosphere, Gaie realized that if we began monitoring our planet's coral reefs (a revolutionary idea at that time since the underwater world had been approached with an 'out of sight and out of mind attitude'), we could likewise use the findings to gauge the health of our larger biosphere. As the harbingers of global change, they could be our 'early warning system', our 'canary in the coal mine'. With this in mind, while inside Biosphere 2, Gaie co-founded the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation (PCRF) in 1991.

"One of the most profound lessons I learned inside Biosphere 2 was that we are all Biospherians; that we are all participants in our biosphere and that we can intelligently work with it to achieve a more sustainable and harmonious future. And right now, there is an incredibly dyad with technology and ecology, and Biosphere 2, for me, was the pinnacle of how we can bring them together to create a sustainable world."

"So I came away from the experience with this profound realization and everything I was learning inside I wished to make more real in my life in this world, in the Earth's biosphere. And so the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation is one attempt that Laser and I are both making to that end. Biosphere 2 was this pulsating living organisms that we were an integral part of and it was all in flux. And there were obvious direct correlations that were so tangible -- we were living in a miniature world, we could feel change in a minute way, and we had to be careful with everything that we did. And in Biosphere 2, the coral reef was the indicator for us of the health of our biosphere; if our coral reef was well, our biosphere was well, and if our biosphere was well, we were well."

"PCRF's mission is to bring this whole idea to light; to help other people realize that we are an integral part of our biosphere, that we each make a difference with what we do, that we can be stewards, and that we can create a sustainable future. And coral reefs are one of the key indicators for us to learn how to do that. And if that is true and our coral reefs are dying -- which they are, with two-thirds of the world's reefs at risk -- then something is immediately wrong. So what we hope to do is to give information and to give visualization (of our visualization of us and the biosphere) to people everywhere, all over the world so that they can get excited, engaged, and can make the difference that is needed, because now is the time. And that is not only our mission, but it is the most important mission that each and everyone one of us have in the next decades."

"We were 8 people who didn't always get along, who didn't always agree. But one thing we all came away with was this idea of agreeing on a task. And our task was very clear and it was: If our biosphere was well, we were well. And we all, no matter what was going on around us, came together with a love of Biosphere 2, with a love of caring for it and wanting to do the best for it. And that was a beautiful experience because it really struck at the heart of the challenges that we face in the world today and in our future: Bringing people together across boundaries...across politics, across religion...and recognizing that we are all breathing the same air, that we are all drinking the same water, that we are all eating the same food, that we are all, in the end of the day, a part of this biosphere. And if that was clearly understood as our number one task -- to take care of our biosphere -- then the challenges that we see around the world would start to vanish. Because no one is really looking at that; we are looking at everything else instead, but no one is really looking at the fact that we are part of a biosphere. And that's stewardship for me, that's the bigger idea of we are one ."

The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation remains the only group pledged to keeping a research vessel continuously at sea mapping, monitoring, and studying our planet's coral reefs. And as their global action campaign for coral reef stewardship continues to grow, their scientific findings will continue to become more influential in policy and conservation efforts around the world.

"If we succeed in bringing the underwater world to the people of the world, we will see change in our lifetime. Because every challenge we face involves getting that information into the eyes, ears, and senses of everyone in the world."

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While Gaie's present work involves the land-based administrative tasks that are required to keep her non-profit organization running, she joins her crew at sea when possible. I was very fortunate that my stay happened to coincide with one of her visits. I was also fortunate that my stay happened to coincide with her son joining the expedition for his 9-month seamanship training program. Dolphin, who has become a close friend of mine, just finished high school this past spring and has been long awaiting his chance to join the expedition!

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September 7, 2006, The Party Eventually Ends...

September 4, 2006, Under the Sea, with Scientific Spectacles...

September 3, 2006, Off the Ship...

August 8, 2006, Back on land, but not for long...

June 24, 2006, Our maiden voyage(s)...

June 19, 2006, Not another mass email...

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