Digging deep during Sound Conversations with Jeff Renner

Jeff Renner

Guest post by Jeff Renner

Emmy-award-winning producer of science documentaries Jeff Renner recently hosted the first of our 2017 Sound Conversations events, devoted to Rialto the rescued sea otter and the Seattle Aquarium’s partnership with The Seattle Times in telling the amazing story of his rehabilitation. Below, Jeff shares a recap of the evening. Interested in our upcoming Sound Conversations events? Details and registration here.

It looked like a soggy brown rag discarded on the beach by a careless hiker. But as wilderness ranger Joseph Alcorn approached, he saw the ‘rag was moving—it had a head, a tail, four paws and it was shrieking. ’It’ was an infant sea otter—just weeks old, struggling and barely alive. The National Park Service ranger felt certain the tiny otter wouldn’t survive much longer. He called the Washington Sea Otter Stranding Network, which began searching for rescue facilities. Call after call failed to find assistance, until the Seattle Aquarium responded.  

Upon first inspection, the Aquarium staff biologists and veterinarian felt the little sea otter had little chance of survival. But as days passed, Rialto—named for the beach on which he was discovered—began to put on weight and gain energy. The transformation was stunning; so stunning that Rialto soon earned the nickname “He Who Will Not Be Ignored.”


Rialto

It was an amazing story, and it captured the attention of Seattle Times environmental reporter Lynda Mapes and photographer Alan Berner. The human interest aspect of the plucky little otter’s recovery was undeniable. He moved the hearts, the compassion of all who saw him. But Mapes and Berner also saw the remarkable story not readily apparent to Seattle Aquarium visitors: the story of the behind-the-scenes scientific expertise that supports both ground-breaking research and animal rehabilitation. And there was the important marine conservation message exemplified by Rialto. That’s why The Seattle Times decided to go “big” on the story, just as the Aquarium went big on the little otter’s care. Both efforts represented considerable investments of time, money and passion.

Lynda and Alan shared this remarkable story as the first guests at the Seattle Aquarium’s Sound Conversation series on March 2. It was like sitting next to Lynda at her newsroom desk, or as a photographic assistant to Alan. Both shared their professional approach, their perspectives, and yes, even their growing sense of affection for this compelling little pup. What emerged from the work of Mapes and Berner, and the stories they shared during the evening Sound Conversations, was the larger importance of expanding our understanding of the health of sea otters along the Washington coast, and the important role they play in the health of our ecosystem.

Although Rialto has moved to a permanent home at the Vancouver Aquarium, his brothers and sisters in the wild act as an important check on sea urchins, a favorite food. Uncontrolled, sea urchins devastate the kelp forests that serve as an important habitat for fish, and absorb part of the impact of waves, protecting sensitive beaches and shorelines. The award-winning work of Mapes and Berner stimulates us all to discard quick answers, to take a more considered view of our environment, to question whether short-term gains truly offset long term costs…and to be more critical consumers of information in this age of “alternative facts.” Lynda Mapes summarized the need well: “We don’t share our toothbrush, because we know we need to watch what goes into our body. We also need to watch what goes into our mind.”

Expect to have your mind “stretched” a bit by our next Sound Conversations guest, writer Jonathan White, on April 6. This Orcas Island resident has travelled the globe, from the Northwest to China to France to the Arctic and back, all to piece together the complex story of tides, featured in his critically acclaimed book, Tides: the Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It’s a story that profoundly affects each of us, and in more ways than we can imagine. The impact and origin of tides has engaged some of the greatest scientific names over the ages, including Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton. You’ll learn more about their work, successes and yes, failures.

Tides: the Science and Spirit of the OceanThink tides only affect the oceans and coastal environment? Not true. The tides impact water well inland, our atmosphere, solid earth and even our own bodies. Jonathan will share colorful stories and examples of each of those impacts, as well as the important effect most familiar to us—along our beaches. The Northwest Coast Native peoples have a saying: “When the tide recedes, the table is set.” The ebb and flow of the tides is fundamental to the flourishing of shellfish, in fact all aspects of our marine ecosystem that are instrumental to the health and prosperity of our region.

Jonathan will outline the impact of “future tides”—the impact of tides on the rotation of the Earth, its distance from the moon, how tides are already amplifying the effect of rising sea levels, and how they are beginning to serve as a potential source of energy—clean, but not without challenges and complications.

And finally, when we hear the word “shark,” our pulse tends to quicken. Having dived with sharks in the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Pacific, I can tell you mine does! You may be surprised that Puget Sound serves at least as an occasional home to some very, very large sharks. Award-winning KCTS producer Michael Werner will unfold the story of these “mystery sharks” in our last Sound Conversations event, on May 17.  Join us!

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