An Advocate for the Oceans / Amagansett conservationist Carl Safian travels the world to help protect it.
On Midway Atoll, the remote Pacific island where a military complex has
given way to a wildlife refuge, conservationist Carl Safina observes as a
Laysan albatross bends over its chick, opens its tube-shaped bill and begins to
regurgitate a meal.
But the adult struggles with the delivery. It retches. No food comes out.
Then Safina sees why. The plastic tip of a toothbrush slowly appears from the
great bird's snowy-feathered throat. Safina, who has spent most of his 47 years
observing birds up close, is stunned.
A native of Brooklyn who grew up in Syosset, Safina has landed at the
forefront of ocean advocacy with a singular voice distinguished by an unabashed
love of nature, a muscular command of scientific literature and, at times, by
unapologetic anger. In his new book, "Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and
Survival," (Henry Holt and Co., $27.50) Safina invokes the mythic stature of
albatrosses as mariners' birds of good omen to detail the ecological challenges
facing the birds and finally to make the case for a conservationist ethos of
"The main message from the albatross is this: Every watery point on the
compass is now conscripted into our all-consuming culture, whether intended or
not," Safina writes. "No matter what coordinates you choose, from waters polar,
to solar coral reefs, to the remotest turquoise atoll - no place, no creature
remains apart from you and me."
Safina has long been known in marine circles for his work with regional and
international fishing-policy panels and for the Living Oceans Program he
founded at the National Audubon Society. But he reached a wider audience in
1998 with his critically acclaimed book, "Song for the Blue Ocean." That book,
for which Safina diagnosed oceanic woes by observing the occasionally
outrageous operations of various fishing ventures around the world, drew
comparisons to "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson's environmental classic. In 2000,
the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its $500,000 "genius" grants.
Based now in Amagansett, Safina has used the windfall to bankroll more rounds
of peripatetic reportage.
Between speaking engagements and preparation for his next book, Safina
often can be found on the deck of his Grady-White powerboat, cradling a
deep-sea fishing rod. Like Teddy Roosevelt, whose manly salons at Sagamore Hill
display the mounted heads of his quarry, Safina is the conservationist who
also enjoys killing animals for fun. He was even cited a few years ago for
having an undersized striped bass aboard (someone else caught it). For him,
this was a "very unfortunate, stupid thing" that drew howls from commercial
fishermen. They have not always appreciated Safina's efforts to highlight the
number of nontargeted fish that are unintentionally killed in their nets.
He is a bachelor, but hardly a confirmed one. His work, he admits, has
"messed up" his personal life. It's hard to be there for someone on Long Island
when you're scuba-diving with a sponge researcher on the coral reefs of Palau.
With "Eye of the Albatross," Safina once again logs some serious mileage.
embeds explorations of ocean pollution, fishing pressure and climate change in
a sweeping and often quirky biography of a single albatross. Puckishly, with
another long-distance flier in mind, he names her Amelia.
"Carl's great strength is his ability to articulate in an accessible way,
for the average person, what is troubling our oceans and to do it in a way that
both raises your concerns but also leaves you with some hope that we can
address these issues in an effective way," says Roger Rufe, president of the
Ocean Conservancy, a national marine-conservation group.
While Safina has seemed to construct his career with the usual building
blocks - doctorate in ecology, years of field research, service on
obscure-sounding but crucial committees on fisheries management - it took some
time before he connected his passions with a profession. There weren't many
marine conservationists in the old neighborhood of Ridgewood, Brooklyn.
"When I was a kid, I thought men were just people who had tattoos and drove
forklifts," he says. "I didn't know you could become a researcher, or anything
But a light was shining, even if it did not yet illuminate a path. His
schoolteacher father raised canaries, and Safina spent his early boyhood
surrounded by their melodies. In second grade, he began breeding pigeons in the
backyard. As a teenager on Long Island, Safina fell under the sway of two sets
of rhythms - the seasonal pulses of the local fish he pursued and the cadence
he kept on the drums. He played in the Syosset High School marching band, made
pocket change in wedding combos and still keeps a kit set up in his Audubon
office. Then one day, a classmate recruited him for a bird-banding survey on
Fire Island. That was it. He was immediately besotted with the migrant
warblers, creepers and other "living jewels" snared in the project's mist nets.
"You could see the creative springs were there, and he was also fiercely
independent," says Darrel Ford, a Babylon man who organized the project and who
Safina counts as an early mentor. "He wasn't afraid, even as a teenager, to
voice a contrary opinion and defend it with vigor."
After earning degrees at SUNY Purchase, then at Rutgers University, Safina
studied seabirds and hawks on behalf of Audubon. It was the terns that colonize
the watery fringe of Long Island that eventually drew him into his current
arena. He observed that the birds seemed to face increasing difficulty finding
food. Striped bass, porgies, black sea bass - where were they? Eventually, many
people did care about these species' decline, but largely for economic or
lifestyle reasons. Safina saw the fish as wild animals. While reasonable
harvest was appropriate, he argued, the fish also deserved protection, much for
the same philosophical reasons as the American buffalo.
"People never thought of fish as wildlife," he says. "They just thought
fish was something that wound up in the fish store, or on a plate in a
As with Safina's earlier book, "Eye of the Albatross" blends a natural
history narrative with profiles of scientists at work. In lonely outposts,
largely unknown researchers broil in the sun as they somehow lure tiger sharks
into swallowing satellite-based tracking devices, and, of course, eye the
albatrosses. "I didn't want people to think like I did when I was a kid," he
says, "that there's this class of researchers out there somewhere, and that you
can never aspire to be them."
If these are ordinary people, they bend their lives to the fortunes of
decidedly extraordinary birds. As Safina writes, "Almost everything about
albatrosses is superlative and extreme."
Except for time spent each year incubating eggs, albatrosses spend
virtually their entire lives flying over the oceans. These are the jumbo jets
of the natural world: The larger species, the wandering and royal albatrosses,
measure 11 feet, wingtip to wingtip. Some species can weigh 26 pounds - twice
the heft of the largest eagles. Oddly, comparatively little of their weight is
of flight muscles. Alabatrosses do not really need such muscles, because they
do not flap their enormous wings much, except on takeoff. They're gliders, wed
for life to the vagaries of the wind. Albatrosses apparently live for decades
and, using a keen sense of smell, they detect places in the trackless seas at
which currents collide, where the squid they eat are more likely to be found.
In seeming exchange for these natural talents, the birds replace themselves
with great deliberation. They mature as teenagers and most only then produce a
single egg every other year. Once hatched, the chicks are helpless. Many are
apt to drown in tropical downpours, never moving as they await rescue from a
parent who is likely gone for a few days on a thousand-mile forage.
Safina watched as chicks died in such natural ways, but he also took pains
to document the birds' unnatural threats. He catalogs the tides of marine
debris on the distant islands he visits - most comes from land - and he writes
of the birds' fatal attraction to the baited hooks strung out over many miles
in the so-called "long-line" fisheries.
True to his ultimately hopeful bent, however, Safina chooses to board a
long-lining boat whose skipper and crew are determined to make their profit and
do no harm. Like their mariner forebears, the men of the 70-foot Masonic have
grown to admire the giant birds they have seen flying unruffled in the howl of
an offshore gale. So, the crew flies streamers off the boat's stern to keep the
birds back until the baited hooks, weighted down, are submerged.
"It seems, therefore, all the more heartbreaking, and ultimately
unacceptable, that in much of the rest of the world, long-liners don't bother,
while birds drown and the albatross populations decline," Safina writes.
Like an albatross, Safina goes through long periods during which he only
rarely alights. Invitations pile up. They are from fisheries policy boards and
scuba-diving conferences and culinary professionals and monks. Last week, the
Trappists in Kentucky hosted him at their seminar on religion and the
From him, these groups hear about fisheries' declines but also about his
dream for how people might better appreciate nature. His perspective may seem
wistfully modern but Safina knows it is age-old. He draws generously in his
book from the best-known albatross tale of all time, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," whose resonant climax suggests: "He prayeth
well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast."
Asked if he is religious, he firmly answers, "Not at all." No angels and
saints for this Italian-American. What "feels spiritual" to him is the notion
that all forms of life are, in some way, related. His field research supports
this hypothesis. He has felt this kinship as he has observed an albatross
unfold its great wings, hop into the wind and veer away alone with the current.
"It does the things we're also mostly concerned about," he says. "It tries
very hard to stay alive. It's motivated to reproduce. It gets hungry and goes
to look for food. It gets frightened. Compared to other things in the universe,
we and the albatrosses are almost identical."