Learn about the science behind the photos through the stories of research and conservation scientists in our area!
When Dr. Randy Wells began volunteering at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota as a 16-year-old, he had no idea that it would lead to his life’s work. In fact, the species he’s now a world expert on wasn’t even the one he wanted to study in the first place. “Mote and its founder Dr. Eugenie Clark were known for studying sharks. I wanted to study sharks — though I would have cleaned tanks or done just about any job they had given me.”
Instead, he ended up meeting Dr. Blair Irvine, who was just beginning the first studies to tag and release bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor and began an internship helping Irvine with his projects.
That was in 1970. Today Wells is a senior conservation scientist with the Chicago Zoological Society and leads the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), which has grown to become the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. The SDRP has been operated by the Chicago Zoological Society since 1989, and it is based at Mote Marine Laboratory.
When most people think of marine biologists, they probably picture the woman studying sharks or the guy studying dolphins — people working on boats in the ocean to study charismatic animals that capture so many of our imaginations. But for Dr. Kim Ritchie, senior scientist and Manager of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Coral Reef Ecology and Microbiology Program, the real excitement of the marine world takes place under a microscope where bacteria are fighting for primacy on their host organisms — and even playing key roles in whether their host survives, thrives or dies.
At the South Florida Museum, Marilyn Margold is best known for her work with Snooty, our world-famous manatee. But in addition to serving as Director of the Museum’s Living Collections and Co-Chair of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, Margold is also a volunteer committed to helping conserve sea turtle populations.
Northern right whales once thrived throughout the northern Atlantic Ocean. But today, their range extends only from the Bay of Fundi south to Cape Canaveral and they hold the distinction of being the most endangered large whale species in the world. That’s because for most of the early 20th century, humans hunted them to near-extinction. Whalers actually named them “right” whales because they were the correct whale to hunt — they lived in coastal areas easily reachable to whaling vessels, were relatively slow moving and, once dead, would float, making it easier to bring them aboard a ship so their blubber could be turned into oil.
Today, only about 500 right whales remain and it falls to conservation biologists like Dr. James A. “Buddy” Powell to help save them. Powell is Executive Director of the Sea to Shore Alliance, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2008 to protect and conserve fragile coastal ecosystems and the species that call them home — particularly right whales, sea turtles and manatees. The Alliance includes trained ecologists, biologists and citizen volunteers who conduct scientific research and public outreach and education programs to help save species.
Capt. Eric Weather was barely a teenager when ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau inspired his passion for the ocean. “I grew up in Buffalo and I was watching a Jacques Cousteau episode on TV during our 17th month of winter,” Weather recounts with a laugh. “And here they are on their research vessel somewhere warm and along comes another research vessel. And I thought ‘Wow. You mean there’s more than one research vessel out there doing these awesome things?’ And that really started it all for me.”
Weather was scuba certified at age 13 and went on to become a fisheries biologist, studying marine and freshwater fish and their habitats. He worked in Oklahoma and California before landing a position at Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in 2005. There, he conducts acoustic mapping studies of reef fish habitats as part of the Fisheries Independent Monitoring program. But it is educating local residents and visitors about the ocean environment that drove Weather to create his own charter company in 2014.
Long before Florida became one of the nation’s most visited states, before snorkelers and divers descended en masse on the tiny town of Crystal River to swim with the manatees, Dr. James A. “Buddy” Powell decided to give it a shot.
Powell, first introduced to manatees while fishing with his dad on the river when he was 5 or 6 years old, was always curious about the lolling mammals – and rather wary of them. “No one really knew anything about them back then, but I was always sort of curious,” says Powell, who now recounts the story of himself as a teenaged kid sitting on the edge of a boat, screwing up his courage to get in the water near a manatee.
Brian Skerry has been all over the world photographing underwater creatures both large and small. Yet after four decades, he remains amazed about the stories that the sea holds. With that idea in mind, the South Florida Museum will be featuring some of the ocean science and conservation work being conducted here in Southwest Florida by our local nonprofits and scientists. We hope that 'Ocean Soul' and these local stories of the sea will inspire your own support for ocean conservation and research.