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Wild Voices Project: the podcast for nature lovers

Wildlife photographers, authors, film makers, fundraisers and change-makers are all coming together to tell their stories — and they’re definitely worth hearing!

I am endlessly inspired by the people who dedicate their lives to protecting nature and wildlife across the globe, and fascinated by their stories. That’s why I became instantly addicted when I discovered the brilliant podcastWild Voices Project‘ by naturalist Matt Williams!

I am already a fan of podcasts and it seems I’m not alone. Figures from March this year show that 23% of people in the UK have listened to a podcast in the past month, and on average, podcast listeners spend 3.6 hours listening to podcasts in a typical week. I personally fall into the category of around that much a day — hungrily drawing on audio inspiration as I work at my desk.

So, given that I’m a bit of podcast addict, here are five good reasons why Wild Voices Project is certainly one to tune in to for all nature and wildlife lovers and those curious about science comms!

 

5 reasons to listen to Wild Voices Project podcast…

 

1. New and surprising people to discover…

Although I’ve spent a long time working in and around wildlife conservation, and I’ve met many fascinating people along the way, there’s always a desire to cast the net wider and find out about the work, issues and lifestyles of nature lovers far and wide. Or those under our noses that perhaps aren’t given the media attention they deserve.

For example, it was a treat to listen to an interview with Skywalker gibbon researcher Carolyn Thompson, (who previously won a Roots & Shoots award) after learning so much about Dr Jane Goodall‘s Roots & Shoots programme over the last few years.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

2. Real voices in their own words…

It is an incredible honour to tell the stories of the people who change our planet, I know this from my own years of blogging. But there’s something quite special about simply framing those stories and allowing the person at the centre to tell it themselves.

From the first episode I listened to — an interview with the wonderful late Dr Alan Rabinowitz that I discovered while further researching the jaguar hero after writing my blog post about him (which you can read here) — to some of the most recent recordings, including an interview with Racing Extinction Director Louie Psihoyos, I have found every podcast inspiring. The authenticity of hearing these conservation heroes telling their own stories in their own words really helps to connect you with their journey.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

3. Voices from very different fields…

“Volunteers, conservation staff, TV presenters, photographers, surveyers, amateur enthusiasts, moth lovers, butterfly netters, dragonfly illustrators, guano collectors and more. They are the people with amazing stories to tell who help wildlife to flourish,” the Wild Voices Project website states. It’s true that a wonderful and diverse range of conservationists are represented on this podcast. And I’ve certainly learnt a little something new about nature from every single one.

Tiffany Francis‘ interview about her book ‘Food You Can Forage‘ was certainly one of my favourite finds. It’s an area I wouldn’t have necessarily researched myself, but after listening to her talk, I genuinely have a new and unexpected interest in foraging!

Click the image above to have a listen

 

4. Doesn’t shy away from debate…

I must admit, I’m impressed with the way that podcast host Matt Williams encourages open and frank debate. Often in the wildlife and conservation world, controversy sparks heated social media arguments, but moving away from the written word gives us a chance to listen more calmly to those who have less popular views. I’ve enjoyed taking the time to listen to opinions that I don’t often hear voiced — or those which would be lost under a stack of heated opposition on Facebook. I was interested to hear Dr James Borrell‘s recent discussion on whether or not we should be focussing on wildlife within country borders (NB: he believes in looking at the wider ecology) and I respect his view that ‘more healthy disagreement is what’s needed to help secure environmental progress’. You can check that episode out below.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

5. New roving reporter…

Ok, this one’s a little cheeky — but I’m absolutely delighted to acting as a roving reporter for this brilliant podcast from time to time! As much as I absolutely love blogging and writing (for my day job at Nat Geo Kids), I’m excited to try out a different format and put my interview skills to the test. Of course I’m used to chatting to my conservation heroes, but it’s certainly a bit different for me to have people listening in! My first foray into this field; an interview with Dr Jane Goodall is live on the podcast now and can be listened to by clicking the link below.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

Do let me know what you think, and if you’ve found any other recommended nature and wildlife podcasts, by leaving a comment in the box below.

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Sea turtle conservation and my first National Geographic Kids cover story!

There’s nothing like the excitement of new life. Scooping out the final handful of cool sand to reveal the first couple of pristine, squishy white eggs, it was a complete thrill to know that soon there would be a mass of tiny loggerhead sea turtles hatched out and running toward the sea.

sea turtle eggs in nest

Watching the Sarasota sun rising in the sky as we completed documenting and recording every detail of the nest, I felt the wave of sickness in my tummy starting to shift too. It was morning sickness. Like the tiny little lives flourishing inside the eggs of the sandy nest we’d been recording, there was a tiny life flourishing inside of me too.

Even without eating breakfast, the 6am sea air churned my stomach. But it was worth it to join the Mote Marine Laboratory‘s turtle patrol team. I was on one of my first field assignments for National Geographic Kids magazine; to explore the local marine life in Florida, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way!

Kate on Conservation turtle nest monitoring

Photograph by Mark Sickles

Joining Mote’s sea turtle nest monitoring team on Venice Beach, Sarasota was a fantastic assignment. Finding the newly dug egg chambers, having the opportunity to actually see the eggs — and then protecting the nests from unsuspecting beachgoers who may accidentally stand on them — was a very moving experience.

As a soon-to-be mum; seeing the effort that these incredible turtle mothers go through to find the perfect nesting spot to give their young the best chance at life brought a tear to my eye! (ok, lots of things brought a tear to my eye when I was pregnant, but this truly was special).

Mote team with patrol vehicle on the beach

Out and about with the Mote team

I learnt that over the previous year’s nesting season, Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program reported that Longboat Key through Venice hosted a total of 4,588 nests (beating the 2015 record by 2,103 nests), showing this thriving nesting area’s importance to the local sea turtle population.

Shifting sands and moving nests

Sometimes, when the nests are in a spot that may be affected by human impact, such as beach nourishment, it’s necessary for the Mote team to move them.

A nourishment project takes place where there is a need to place fresh sand on the beach. It takes a while for the turtles to get used to the new sand, because its texture and height can be different and create obstacles.

Following the previous year’s nourishment project on Venice beach, the turtles would not come very far up the sand. There were almost three times as many false crawls (where a mother comes onto the beach to lay her eggs, but returns to the sea without actually nesting) as there were nests.

A false crawl on Venice beach, Sarasota

A false crawl, where a mother turtle has turned around and returned to the sea without nesting

in 2016, the team had to relocate 200 nests! Which meant moving up to eight a day. This is no easy feat when there’s a tight deadline to move nests by 9.30am, before visitors and tourists come to the beach.

Apparently it takes an hour to find all the eggs, dig them all out of the sand, and put them all back in at the new location. Of course eggs have to be moved extremely delicately and carefully, as the team don’t know exactly when the eggs were laid overnight.

mote team moving sand

To make the task even more complex, when a new nest chamber is dug, it must be exactly like that which the mother created.

“You have to measure it perfectly and dig a new one exactly the same,” Mote’s Kirsten Mazzarella tells me. “And you have to find a spot that’s not going to have a predators and a place that doesn’t have any lighting to draw them in the wrong direction. You don’t want to move them to a worse spot than where the mum laid them.”

Mote’s Kirsten tells us all about the nest relocation programme. Photo by Mark Sickles

Mote feel very strongly about creating nests the way that mother’s intended, as they try not to interfere with nature. Moving nests is not something they like to do, as usually the mother has picked the best natural spot and they may be moving it to a less desirable area. If the mother has picked a bad site, they don’t like to move this either, as that’s nature’s way of saying the genes were not meant to be passed on.

“We take care of human impact, but not nature’s impact,” Kirsten explains. “We used to move the nests that were too close to the water higher up the beach, but now if the mother turtle gets it wrong, we allow nature to take its course. The only time we actively move a nest is when a nourishment project of the sand is actively taking place. That requires the nourishment people to get a special permit and then contact Mote to do the work.”

Turtle treatment and recovery

Mote work hard to reduce human impact and help the turtle populations in other ways too. They own one of only three wildlife hospitals in Florida with special facilities and training to care for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumors.

Because scientists are still learning how the disease is transmitted among turtles, they must provide a separate facility just for animals with these tumours.

Grace the green turtle gets ready for surgery

Grace the green turtle gets ready for surgery to remove her fibropapilloma tumours. Photo by Mark Sickles

Tumours can grow on the surface of the flippers, inside the mouth (affecting feeding), and on the turtle’s eyes. All tumours are removed by laser surgery, though the animal must have at least one salvageable eye after removal of the tumours in order to be released back into the wild.

It was an incredible and emotive experience to be allowed behind the scenes in this amazing facility, which really is changing the lives of these beautiful animals. The care and attention delivered by staff is admirable, and I don’t quite know what the outcome would be for the injured and sick turtles if it weren’t for Mote.

turtle hospital feature in Nat Geo Kids magazine

It’s also fascinating to discover how far the facility has come and what they have learnt in the day-to-day handling of its patients.

Up until 2010, they used to have to keep turtles in the centre for a year after their tumour-removal surgery, to ensure they were not contagious. If they had a re-growth of any tumours, they would have to start that clock again.

This meant that some animals were being kept at the facility for two years and more! But in 2010, Sarasota had an outbreak of red tide (a harmful algal bloom), which saw the hospital inundated with patients, so they made the decision to release turtles with the disease as soon as they healed from surgery.

Over time they learnt that the virus comes out in times of stress, so keeping them in captivity to ensure they were healed was actually creating a vicious cycle where they ended up getting more tumours instead of recovering.

Kate on Conservation with Nat Geo Kids cover story

I learnt so much about Mote’s projects and Sarasota’s different species of turtle (loggerhead, leatherback, green turtle, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley) on my trip — all of which are mentioned in my Nat Geo Kids article. If you’d like to read about them and much more about the turtle nesting patrol and turtle hospital (I’ve tried to keep the content of this blog post quite different from the article), the May issue is out now!

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Want to know more about my work with Nat Geo Kids?

Want to know more about Nat Geo Kids inspiring natural history learning?

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Killer whales in captivity: guest post by Ben Stockwell

My latest Kate on Conservation guest blog post explores the reality of orcas in captivity. Just two weeks after a new film detailing the story of Tokitae (renamed Lolita by Miami Seaquarium) was shared online, this post from Ben Stockwell was inspired by his Geography dissertation, and reminds us all why the issue of orca captivity is one we should still be talking about after the death of SeaWorld’s Tilikum.

Exploitation or Conservation Education?  

sea world tilikum

In 2014 I wrote my undergraduate Geography dissertation, entitled Killer whales in captivity: Exploitation or Conservation and Education?  Since then, public and media attention around the topic has soared as a result of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s incredible Blackfish released in 2013.

The documentary followed the life of SeaWorld’s prized bull orca, Tillikum, and his involvement in the tragic deaths of three people, highlighting the issues with keeping such large, intelligent animals captive along the way.  

Whilst publication of the topic is not in short supply, I couldn’t let this stop me (finally) sharing some of my findings. I have chosen to focus on my favourite section of the project, which looked at the pros and cons of anthropomorphising orcas (assigning them human characteristics). Now this might not seem like a good way of arguing for or against keeping orcas captive, but just bear with me.  

Humans certainly have a desire to label things, especially in ways that we can relate to. Take pets; we give them human names and assign them human characteristics. A good example is the viral sensation ‘Grumpy Cat’, whose underbite and feline dwarfism induced ‘grumpy’ face made her a social media sensation (she even has her own movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever!). By identifying animals, such as a (grumpy) cat, as having shared features and even emotions with us, we can empathise and relate to them, forming tighter bonds.    

In the case of SeaWorld, these bonds are developed via the naming of their orcas, say Tilikum, or even ‘Tilly’ for short. Additionally, the orca perform human actions throughout the show, splashing the crowd and blowing raspberries — a playful act that signifies their intelligence and further helps us empathise with them. They reinforce this message by referring to trainers and orcas as being part of ‘one really big family’ and each orca having a ‘unique personality’. 

Sea world, Florida

The shows combine anthropomorphisation of the orca with repeated messaging about our ‘one ocean’ that is under threat, which through ‘conservation and education’, ‘we’ can help to protect. I do actually think that these techniques will inspire many watching about the species and their natural habitats. You only need to look at dogs and cats, animals we have forever anthropomorphised, and look how well we treat them!  

However, this all needs to be considered in the context of these being wild animals living in unnatural circumstances. Suggesting they are ‘one big family’ is simply not true, as the artificial pods in captivity are often highly dysfunctional, comprised of individuals from sub-species thrown together in a small pool. The result is often raised levels of aggression towards each other (and humans), high levels of stress and abnormal behaviours.  

Similarly, applying human characteristics to animals, like names and human behaviours, hardly educates the public about orcas in the wild (or even the issues they face). Yes, being able to blow bubbles on command is impressive, but it’s not a natural behaviour that would occur without our interference. I think this provides very little educational value to the shows and whilst they do attempt to inspire the audience to relate to the orca, I would be very interested to know how many people go on to donate to conservation efforts as a result.  

In fact, it is highly likely that this form of consumptive tourism attributes to some of the issues orca face in the wild anyways. Think about the number of single-use plastics sold at SeaWorld – how many of those end up in in the marine environment? Even SeaWorld’s own orca have a legacy of damaging wild populations – the Southern Resident population is now Endangered, largely as a result of the 47 individuals killed or captured by the industry in the 60s and 70s. I suppose there is a strange irony that this staged spectacle is sold as a conservation and education tool, whilst it may well have contributed or is still contributing to the plight of wild killer whales (but this is a whole other section of my project, which I won’t bore you with!).

Ben Stockwell, Galapagos Conservation TrustBen Stockwell completed a degree in physical geography, focussing his dissertation on keeping killer whales in captivity, before going on to complete a Masters in Conservation Ecology. Working for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, he gained experience in community engagement and urban conservation and is now working for the Galapagos Conservation Trust as the Communications and Membership Assistant.

 

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation here: http://uk.whales.org/

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National Geographic Kids Magazine: Secrets of the Spotted Eagle Ray

Nat geo kids magazine Kate on conservation

This past week I reached a career milestone — my first feature published in National Geographic Kids Magazine!

I’ve been working at Nat Geo Kids for the last eight months, and although I’ve written articles for the website, editorial for the magazine and launched the new school’s primary resources service, this has been my first opportunity to write a first-person feature. In this case, it was about Mote Research Laboratory‘s work to tag and monitor Spotted Eagle Rays.

Spotted eagle ray feature in nat geo kids magazine

At the start of the summer, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Florida, to research conservation stories on location for National Geographic Kids. One of the location’s I visited was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which is home to Mote — an independent, not-for-profit marine research organisation dedicated to understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

mote turtle patrol

My partner and I spent an entire day with the team at Mote — beginning with a 6am turtle patrol along the beach, looking for fresh crawl marks made overnight by female sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

Though at first we only found a couple of ‘false crawls’ (where flipper marks showed the female had returned to the water without digging a nest; perhaps because the area was not quite right, or perhaps because the timing wasn’t), we did eventually find a nest site containing eggs (verified by the Mote team gently digging round the area, recording, then covering the eggs back over with sand). It was an exciting start to the day, and one which hopefully will have a full feature of its own in the magazine!

Mote marine turtle hospital

Our second stop of the day (after some much needed breakfast on the go!) was a visit to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. Having cared for all five species of Sea Turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida’s most frequently seen species; loggerheadsleatherbacks and green turtles, it was a real treat to experience the expertise of Mote’s hospital team.

We were given a tour of the hospital, which has admitted around 600 sick and injured sea turtles in the last 20 years, and saw turtles recovering from surgery (above left), one receiving care for a pretty deep wound on its underside from a boat’s propellor (top image above) and one waiting for surgery to remove several clusters of tumours (above right). This poor female was having her tumours treated in a special facility for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumours, because scientists are still learning how this disease is transmitted among turtles.

spotted eagle ray research boat

The final part of our day consisted of joining Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull on one of Mote’s research boats. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for at first, there was plenty to see – from pelicans diving to catch fish, to dolphins bobbing out of the waves ahead. The research team logged every marine animal we passed, noting down what the animal was, and taking a reading from the GPS device to determine the exact coordinates that the animal was seen from.

First one, then two, spotted eagle ray’s came into view and the boat’s crew sprang into action. The spotted eagle ray is a type of fish with a flat body and wing-like fins for gliding through the water. Like their stingray cousins, eagle rays defend themselves using stinging spines with a barbed tip. This particular species can be identified by a bright white spot pattern on their back.

We had the opportunity to see one of the creatures join the important monitoring programme after being caught, tagged and released. Hopefully it will help with collecting data about migration and breeding patterns of the species — which remain a relative mystery.

***

Now, I wouldn’t want to detail exactly what happened on the boat that afternoon; if you want to find out, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of National Geographic Kids Magazine this month! ;).

 

More about my work with Nat Geo Kids

Want to know what happened when I met Dr Jane Goodall on behalf of Nat Geo Kids?

Want to know more about Nat Geo Kids inspiring natural history learning?

Discover my work in conservation education with Discovery

 

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