Connecting With the Ocean in Your Own Backyard

Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
ocean conservation.

ex•plore  (ik-splôr)
v. ex•plored, ex•plor•ing, ex•plores
To search into or travel over for the purpose of adventure and discovery

For the longest time I added, “…in an exotic part of the world that requires an expensive flight,” to the above definition of “explore.”

Ever since my godparents took me to Belize as my high school graduation gift (yes, everyone should have godparents!), I was hooked on international travel. So, I would save and save as I planned my next global foray. After operating with this mentality for many years, something changed on a hillside in northern Uganda.


I was near the end of a 9-month journey that had taken me from studying
and photographing whale sharks in the Seychelles Islands to the forests
of Uganda, assisting a PhD student with her thesis project on
chimpanzees. After my research duties were complete, I struck off,
traveling around the country. I had reached the remote northern end of
Uganda bordering Sudan in the land of the Karamojong, a people known as
the country’s nomadic warriors.
While exploring the area, I
followed two women carrying unwieldy sacks of potatoes on their heads up
a steep path in the hillside and found myself overlooking the tiny
village of Tapac. For some reason, I was struck down to the bones with a
feeling of being an alien. Maybe it was because I was missing home,
friends, and family, and wanted to be “the norm” again: a dime-a-dozen
white, blonde girl who could blend into the background if needed.
Whatever the reason, I thought, “This is not my land. I miss my home. I
miss the ocean.” As I wandered back down the steep hillside, I promised
myself that I would never again take the beautiful place where I grew up
for granted.
The moment on the hill came and went, and when I arrived home to San
Diego, California, a month later I failed to stay true to my word at
first. I settled back into my normal routine. It wasn’t until I noticed
that my friends and I were getting sick more often after surfing that
the thought reemerged, triggered by wanting to understand why we were
getting sick, and once again realizing I didn’t know my own home. I
began a project, which I named Source to Sea, and set out to photograph
and explore the watershed system in San Diego County to illustrate the
connection between the pollutants that enter the system on land and the
ones that end up in our coastal waters. I applied for grants to support
the project and received a Young Explorers Grant from National
Geographic. This began my backyard exploration.
I trekked
along the rivers, camping and photographing. I explored down near the
U.S./Mexico border along the Tijuana River. I spoke with the locals, but
this time they were my neighbors, and interviewed those who were
impacting the local water quality. I saw new places that I’d lived so
close to my whole life, but had never made the effort to investigate. I
explored parts of the coastline I hadn’t seen, and finally paid attention
to the story that had been unfolding around me for years.
getting out and seeing things on the ground, I learned that a multitude
of factors were negatively impacting the ocean, and even worse, that I
was unwittingly contributing to the problem through my daily habits.
This realization first hit me when I came across large-scale farming
operations while photographing the San Diego River, and watched it being
doused with pesticides. I knew that pesticides and fertilizers
contributed to polluting runoff, but witnessing the application of these
chemicals firsthand moved the knowledge from my mind to my heart. It
was just the extra motivation I needed to stop supporting those
operations by buying conventional fruit in the grocery stores, and
instead pay a little extra for local, organically grown foods. 


During the project I interviewed many people, including the regional executive director of the California Water Quality Board, David Gibson. He taught me that something which might seem insignificant, like the fact that my car had recently begun leaking a small amount of oil, could actually contribute greatly to runoff pollution. I’m ashamed to say I had shrugged the leak off as inconsequential. But, if every one of San Diego’s 3 million residents had a leaky car, it would have devastating consequences, as Gibson pointed out. He explained that vehicles are some of the worst polluters of our waterways, especially due to the proliferation of impermeable surfaces onto which oil and gas residue–as well as copper from car breaks–are deposited, and then washed by rain into rivers, and often straight out to sea–without ever being absorbed and filtered by the soil. I thought of this as I walked underneath Interstate 5, one of California’s major freeways, trekking along the San Dieguito River en route to the ocean. 

30bMarch1ENTRY.jpgAnother way I learned more about my backyard during the Source to Sea project was through arranging a flight to photograph the plumes of runoff that spill out of the river mouths and into the ocean after large storm events. A non-profit called Lighthawk, a collective of volunteer pilots who donate their time and planes to take researchers and photographers in the air for conservation projects, gave me the opportunity to get this bird’s-eye view of the coastline on my small budget. From the air I could see the culmination of pollutants let loose into the ocean on a larger scale. As we flew over the brown plumes of runoff that were spreading a mile out to sea, covering some of my favorite surf breaks, I was relieved not to be in the water that day. That visual, more than any other from my grant, made the connection between land and sea very real to me.

Now you might be thinking, “That’s good and well, but I don’t live near the ocean, so how can I explore it, and why should I care?”
In coastal communities, many water quality slogans go something like, “All drains lead to the ocean.” I say let’s expand that to, ” All rivers lead to the ocean,” because for the most part, they do. This means that when you take a day trip to explore a nearby river, whether you’re in California or Colorado, you are directly connected to the ocean. You have the opportunity to witness firsthand the reality that what’s going on upstream eventually affects the ocean downstream. In fact, you actually get to see a larger part of the process affecting the ocean than us coastal dwellers do! By actively getting out and exploring the rivers, we don’t suddenly become part of the process–because we’ve always been a part of it–but we do become more aware that we are a part of it, and that is a powerful realization.
So get out and see what new things you can discover in your hometown. Bring the kids and make a game of it! For example, did you know that seas once covered many parts of the United States–and the world–during different geological eras? In parts of Pennsylvania and New York, for instance, paleontologists have found remains of coral and clamshells embedded in limestone where a shallow sea used to exist. So get out in your backyard and see what you can find–maybe you’ll dig up a fossil from an ancient sea! Rivers are a good place to start, due to the erosion they promote that can uncover things long hidden beneath the ground.  
Here’s another idea: Next time you have a hankering for some seafood, bring the kids with you to the neighborhood supermarket and visit the seafood counter. Together, you can investigate which part of the world each type of fish came from, and how it arrived at your grocery store. Most stores will have this information labeled next to each item, but if not, have a conversation about it with the merchant at the counter. Even better, do a little research beforehand (Sea Food Watch list) to see which species of fish from which part of the world are sustainable to eat.
The ocean affects all of us, and we affect it. Besides being connected to it via rivers and seafood, the ocean helps maintain a stable range of temperatures on Earth and acts as a carbon sink, protecting our ozone from excessive levels of carbon dioxide. It’s our collective responsibility to keep it healthy, which in turn keeps us healthy. So get out and explore your community! Each new discovery you make will help build a conscientious relationship between your family and the ocean–a win-win situation.

Check out one of National Geographic’s 2012 Adventurers of the Year Alastair Humphreys, who spent a year doing microadventures in his homeland the UK and inspired others to do the same.

Text and Photographs by Shannon Switzer

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