Meet Four Real-Life Guardians of the Sea

Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, Odd Jobs, People
on April 9, 2013
Courtesy of Ken Nedimyer Ken Nedimyer displays coral grown in an underwater nursery to help restore coral reefs off of the Florida Keys.

Teeming with life and covering nearly 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean is one of the planet’s greatest natural resources. Because the ocean is so vast, however, humans aren’t always stellar stewards of the immense body of water, often taking its benefits and bounty for granted. Here are four Americans working to protect the ocean and its creatures for future generations.

Treating injured sea turtles

Veterinarian Terry Norton, 52, wades into the Atlantic Ocean on the Georgia coast and raises his arms in jubilation as one of his patients, a rehabilitated sea turtle named Gracias, swims back into the salty sea as if he’d never left.

As director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Ga., Norton has treated hundreds of sick and injured sea turtles such as Gracias, a boat-strike victim who arrived at the center in 2011 with a torn lung and a missing tail section. Before rehabilitation, the young Kemps Ridley turtle was unable to eat or dive below the water’s surface.

“This is the finale to the whole process,” says Norton, reflecting on Gracias’ ocean release last spring. “Rehabilitating some of these animals can take more than a year, but releasing them only takes a few minutes. It’s very satisfying.”

More than a decade ago, Norton noticed an uptick in sick, stranded or debilitated sea turtles while working for the Wildlife Conservation Society on nearby St. Catherine’s Island. The coastal region had no facility to treat or rehabilitate the creatures, however. Partnering with the Jekyll Island Authority, he transformed an abandoned coal-fired power plant into an internationally recognized marine hospital, research and educational center.

Since opening in 2007, the hospital has treated more than 300 sea turtles, mostly loggerheads that can grow to 350 pounds. About 60 percent of the turtles are returned to sea.

“We spend a lot of time cleaning wounds,” says Norton, who applies medicinal honey to gashes, tears and holes caused by everything from fishing hooks to boat propellers. Other turtles get entangled in fishing nets or lines, mistake plastic pollution for food, or suffer from disease.

“That these creatures still exist is amazing. They’re basically dinosaurs and they’re hanging in there, but they’re having a hard time—mostly because of people,” says Norton, surrounded on the beach by onlookers cheering Gracias’ release. “It’s gratifying to see people excited to see turtles return to the wild.”

Restoring a coral reef

Lifelong scuba diver Ken Nedimyer was 17 when he first explored the barrier reefs off the Florida Keys, home to forests of coral for as far as he could see.

“I was blown away,” recalls Nedimyer, now 57. “It was everything I ever dreamed about—and more.”

For decades, Nedimyer earned his living diving for lobster and tropical fish in the Florida Keys, which lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In the late 1970s, however, he noticed that his underwater paradise was vanishing.

“The coral was dying and its light brown colors were turning into white skeletons. The sea algae began growing like wildfire, covering and killing much of what was left of the coral. I starting asking myself, ‘What’s happening here?’”

What happened, he says, was a “perfect storm” of temperature extremes, hurricanes, a decline in sea urchins that had kept algae under control, and increased human activity along one of the world’s highest-trafficked coral reefs.

In 2007, Nedimyer founded the Coral Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization rooted in his daughter Kelly’s 4-H project. The father and daughter had experimented together to grow and transplant coral in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Kelly’s project won second place in Florida—and became her father’s passion.

Today, the Key Largo, Fla.-based foundation operates eight underwater coral nurseries and has transplanted 4,500 hand-size staghorn corals and 30 elkhorn corals on the reef. This year, Nedimyer expects to plant 10,000 more.

“Corals are like the trees of the coral reef forest,” Nedimyer explains about the stationary marine organisms. “They provide a habitat for fish and other sea critters and a barrier to protect our shorelines, and they are a huge asset to tourism and recreation. It’s an important part of our ecosystem.”

Paddling for ocean protection

A mother of two young children and with a love for the ocean nurtured by her own parents, Margo Pellegrino was an “armchair conservationist” until her father died of a heart attack in 2004.

“It made me realize that life is short. You can’t wait to act,” says Pellegrino, 45, of Medford Lake, N.J.

So in 2007 at age 40, she embarked on an 11-week, 2,000-mile ocean journey from Miami, Fla., to Camden, Maine, in a one-person outrigger canoe—stopping in each state to meet with environmentalists and journalists. Her rallying cry: “The ocean is our world’s biggest asset and we’ve got to wake up and protect it,” says Pellegrino, who urged people to become active with local environmental groups.

Today, Pellegrino has made five expeditions, paddling about 5,000 miles along most of America’s coastline. Along the way, she has met commercial and recreational fishermen, boaters, tugboat captains and surfers. She’s paddled through polluted water, seen dead sea turtles entangled in fishing nets, and picked up lots of floating plastic along the way.

“My dad thought the ocean is big and you can do a lot to it and there will always be more,” she says. “But toward the end of his life, we began to realize there are limits. We can push things to the brink of no return.”

Pelligrino believes it’s not too late, however, to limit fishing and coastal development and to address other practices that threaten the ocean.

“Nature can heal itself,” says the mother of Billy, 11, and Julia, 8. “The wonderful thing is that, if you leave nature alone, eventually things come back.”

Fighting plastic pollution

Navigating his ocean research ship Aguita through a seldom-traveled expanse of the Pacific Ocean in 1997, Capt. Charles Moore kept noticing floating plastic.

“There’d be a small battle cap, then I’d see a bottle, and then a plastic shard,” recalls Moore, 65, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif.

“Here I am in the most remote part of the ocean—as far from land as you can get—and I can’t even come out on deck without seeing plastic in the ocean. I started to wonder if someone had left a trail of crumbs to help me find my way home.”

Moore soon realized the “plastic soup” was more than a coincidence.

Working with other scientists and researchers, he began to study the phenomenon and is credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the world’s largest mass of floating trash, which is larger than the largest landfill.

“It’s kind of a convergence zone, where clockwise currents in the North Pacific compress and circulate trash in a gentle maelstrom. It’s like a toilet that never flushes,” he explains.

Moore’s research shocked the scientific community and launched a movement of environmental coalitions fighting plastic pollution.

“Plastic doesn’t go away,” he says. “It just keeps bobbing around out there and ends up in the convergence zone. You can find millions of small pieces per square kilometer.”

Moore points out that ocean animals cannot discern between food and plastic. “Thirty-five percent of fish we’ve caught have plastic in their stomachs,” says Moore, adding that such pollutants make their way into supermarkets, too. “Without a doubt, we are consuming plastics and the compounds in plastics with our seafood.”

Since ships at sea produce only 20 percent of ocean refuse, Moore says land-based businesses and consumers must change their production, consumption and waste patterns.

“We’re experiencing the unintended consequences of our technology, but it’s time for technology to grow up,” says Moore, author of Plastic Ocean. “If we stop putting plastic in the ocean, the ocean will eventually spit it out and clean itself.”